Contemplating a K4 1361 comeback

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Pennsylvania K4s 1361 hurries along the old Middle Division between Tyrone and Altoona, Pa., on its inaugural excursion run on April 12, 1987. Mechanical problems sidelined the PRR icon the following year, and it's been idle ever since. Ken Murry
With all the exciting news percolating out there these days about new restorations of mainline steam locomotives, I’ve found myself looking back to a similar period, the 1980s and early ’90s. 

You had to pinch yourself in those years, there was so much going on. You had the stalwarts — Union Pacific 844 and 3985, Norfolk & Western 611 and 1218, Nickel Plate 765, Southern Pacific 4449 — but also a host of newcomers, including Frisco 1522, Santa Fe 3751, and Pere Marquette 1225. All had or continue to have reasonably long careers. 

Then there were several others that, like meteors, appeared brilliantly but only briefly, creating a spectacle before sputtering out. I’m thinking here of Atlanta & West Point 290, Cotton Belt 819, and Nickel Plate 587. 

Of all of them, the one that broke my heart the most was Pennsylvania Railroad K4s 4-6-2 No. 1361, that great icon of the PRR that was brought down off the mountain at Horseshoe Curve in 1985 and restored in Altoona, right where it was born in 1918. The completed engine was unveiled April 12, 1987. 

No. 1361 was just another K4 when noted photographer Philip R. Hastings found her in the company of two sisters at Bay Head Junction, N.J., in 1955.
When the Railroaders Memorial Museum of Altoona brought back the 1361, it was a joyous and altogether unbelievable occasion. Here was the essence of the Standard Railroad of the World, for years the face of the Broadway Limited, the star of thousands of publicity photographs and movie scenes and newsreels, the subject of perhaps the greatest railroad painting of all time, Grif Teller’s On Timefrom the PRR’s 1932 calendar, showing a K4 bucking a heavy snowstorm.  

I remember 1361’s comeback as a heady time for steam fans, PRR and non-PRR alike. I am among the former. In fact, I had a chance to ride the engine. It came after I received perhaps the most miraculous invitation of my life, from Bill Withuhn, Smithsonian curator, consultant to the 1361 crew, and often the engine’s hogger. He wondered if I’d like to ride along for a trip out of Altoona.

Visions of Teller’s painting were dancing in my spinning head as I said “yes!” A few weeks later, on July 26, 1987, I climbed aboard 1361’s train at the Conrail yard in Altoona and we were off for an excursion to Bellefonte, connecting at Tyrone with the Nittany & Bald Eagle short line, where the K4 was running in those days.

More on that cab ride in a moment. As all PRR fans know, 1361’s excursion career didn’t last long. In 1988, persistent axle problems sidelined the engine and apparently became an insurmountable problem for the operators, even after it was moved to Steamtown’s shop and partially disassembled for further overhaul. More recently, the 1361’s boiler underwent some work at the East Broad Top shop in Orbisonia, but has since been moved back to Altoona. 

In 1957, the year PRR ended steam usage, the railroad placed the 1361 on display at the Horseshoe Curve. The K4 spent 28 years at the Curve, and it's been 30 since her excursion career ended. Don Wood
I hadn’t thought much about the 1361 in recent years, assuming it would never run again. Thus my excitement when railroad preservationist and PRR devotee Bennett Levin unveiled a new effort to get the 1361 back in steam. Earlier this month, Levin told the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society in Altoona that he and a group were looking to organize a privately funded restoration, one that could include a new all-welded boiler and conversion of the driving axles to roller bearings. 

Anything Levin says should be taken seriously. A successful professional engineer and businessman, he’s endeared himself to PRR fans everywhere by collecting and restoring PRR-inspired diesels and passenger equipment and operating them under the aegis of his Juniata Terminal Co. in Philadelphia.

I got in touch with Levin about the 1361 and found him to be refreshingly blunt about the prospects of seeing it run. His passion runs deep, but so does his realism.

“There is nothing new to report for those who need a shot of instant gratification,” he told me. “There is no fundraising going on as at this time. We are proceeding to determine what the ultimate costs are going to be absent the usual wild guess. Several of us are privately fronting this phase to determine what it is really going to cost.”

The K4's boiler sits in the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum's roundhouse on May 10, the date on which preservationist Bennett Levin announced plans to return the engine to service. The effort will include a new, all-welded boiler to replace this one.
And once that’s done, there would still be a long way to go. As Levin knows, it’s not enough to effect a mechanical restoration. The real ball game is in coming up with a sustainable operating plan, one that provides for a predictable and reliable stream of revenue, not to mention a means for coping with Amtrak’s new policy on sponsoring excursion trains.  

“This is a project with many challenges, some historic and some just over the horizon,” Levin says. “But we are committed to a measured pace, putting things in order, step by step, in order to reach the desired conclusion: a living and breathing operating salute to the memory of the Standard Railroad of the World.”

Living and breathing. That’s exactly what the 1361 was doing back in July 1987, when I climbed the ladder into the cab at Bellefonte for the ride back to Altoona. 

I was too excited to take notes that day, and the ensuing couple of hours flew by. But I remember how Bill and his crew handled the engine — with calm assurance, like they’d been running on the Middle Division long enough to climb high in the seniority list. There was a lot going on, between a photo run in a torrential downpour south of Bellefonte and the need to dodge Conrail piggyback trains over the last 14 miles of main line into Altoona. But 1361 was in good hands.

As for the engine, its presence was overwhelming. Don’t assume a Pacific is small, even if you’re used to N&W 611 or one of those Lima Berkshires. The K4s is a big 4-6-2, matching a generous boiler with 80-inch drivers. TrainsEditor David P. Morgan once described the engine as “elemental, indomitable, fast, inimitable,” almost running out of adjectives.

What I remember most is a booming sound that emanated from inside the engine with each piston stroke. It wasn’t the whistle or the stack talk that grabbed my attention, although they were plenty loud — it was that mysterious basso profundocoming from somewhere in the boiler. I figured it was the K4 telling anyone who’d listen that it could do a lot more than trundle down the Nittany & Bald Eagle at 40 mph. 

Maybe the 1361 will conjure up that full-throated roar again. If anyone can make that happen, it’s Bennett Levin. His track record says so. As for K4s No. 1361, now entering its second century, it has already shown it’s up to the task, if only it gets the chance.

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