The survivor: Nickel Plate 587

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Indiana Transportation Museum's Nickel Plate 2-8-2 No. 587 strides through Sedalia, Ind., on its Sept. 18, 1988, debut trip from Indianapolis to Logansport. ITM, being evicted from its longtime home, has moved the Mikado to safety in Kentucky. Jay Williams
If you follow the world of railroad preservation closely, you know that most of the reports this week coming out of that charnel house known as the Indiana Transportation Museum (ITM) are bad.

The scene in Forest Park at Noblesville, Ind., has been almost impossible to believe: traction equipment and locomotives cut up on the spot; workers, trucks, and acetylene torches everywhere; hurried deals thrown together to save as much equipment as possible; outside groups tagging rolling stock, getting dibs on what’s to be saved; and staring ITM in the face, a Thursday court deadline to vacate the premises, even as the organization says it plans to relocate and start anew.

But there have been some bright spots in this mess. A number of pieces equipment have been sold or conveyed to new owners and are headed for presumably safer homes. The group Ahead of the Torch keeps a good accounting on its Facebook page.

I’m partial to big steam, so of all the good stories to come out of Noblesville (and I mean “out of Noblesville” literally), the best one for me is the dramatic rescue of Nickel Plate 2-8-2 No. 587. Last week, seven big flatbeds of Underwood Machinery Transport of Indianapolis took the various pieces of 587 down to Ravenna, Ky., where the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation (KSHC) plans to restore the Mikado for ITM. The organization is already deep into rebuilding Chesapeake & Ohio 2-8-4 No. 2716 at the Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven. 

“Our actual mission is restoring steam locomotives,” says Chris Campbell, president of KSHC. “We love the opportunity to continue our mission while also helping out another non-profit.”

The Kentucky crew’s timing couldn’t have been better. The 587 was landlocked at the old ITM property and its prognosis was grim without an escape plan. The engine had been stored in the ITM shop for years after restoration plans ground to a halt long ago. Seeing the images of 587’s major components pulling out of Noblesville was, well, thrilling. 

The 587 richly deserves this third chance at redemption. Its first came in 1955, when NKP pulled the engine out of a dead line and donated it to the city of Indianapolis for display in its Broad Ripple Park. The second came in 1983, when ITM acquired the engine via lease from the city and moved it into Amtrak’s Beech Grove Shops for mechanical work.

Illustrating the versatility of the USRA light Mikado design, NKP 587 heads a campaign train carrying vice-presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon at Lafayette, Ind., on Oct. 14, 1952. Jay Williams coll.
In September 1988, the 587 made a triumphant return, pulling a memorable excursion from Indianapolis to Logansport on Conrail’s former Pennsylvania Railroad South Wind route (now mostly abandoned). The accompanying photo by Jay Williams, an early and crucial champion of the 587, captures the spirit of that day as 587 delights a small crowd in Sedalia, Ind.  

For a while, ITM’s 587 was a player on the mainline excursion scene. It ran numerous trips in Indiana in the late ’80s and for a time was part of the Norfolk Southern steam program. It shared an amazing tripleheader with N&W 4-8-4 611 and N&W 2-6-6-4 No. 1218 on the way to the 1989 NRHS convention in Asheville, N.C., and made a high-profile appearance with NKP 2-8-4 No. 765 at the 1993 NRHS convention in Chicago. Along the way it was the first locomotive to earn placement on the National Register of Historic Places. 

My good friend William Benning Stewart, a railroad writer of rare distinction, puts the 2-8-2 in this perspective, underscoring the true value of this particular machine: 

“Created from a standardized design blending the best of contemporary steam locomotive technologies, the USRA light Mikado soon earned a reputation as a serviceable, durable, and dependable mid-sized locomotive. Handsome but not vain, reliable but not boastful, this was a locomotive many Americans saw hurrying through their home towns with a red ball freight one day and switching the local lumber yard the next. And yet it was equally capable of handling passenger trains, troop trains, coal trains, and transfer runs — and did so with vigor across the nation.”

I’ll credit Bill for the following calculation: From among the 625 examples of 2-8-2s built during the USRA years and the 641 copies that followed, only seven were to survive in parks and museums. One of those was the 587.

Retired from its career with the Nickel Plate, the 587 is moved into Indianapolis' Broad Ripple Park in 1955. Gil Reid
My own association with 587 dates to the spring of 1989, when I was still a rookie associate editor at Trains. That was an auspicious season for steam, with three restored locomotives emerging in the Midwest, including Frisco 4-8-2 No. 1522 in St. Louis, Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225 in Owosso, Mich., and the 587.

My boss, Editor Dave Ingles, had this idea for a series of stories on these engines, so in the March 1989 issue we kicked off a series called “Steam Renaissance in the Midwest.” Yours truly wrote the first piece, “Frisco Fairy Tale,” about the 1522. The following month came “The Spartan Locomotive,” a rollicking account of 1225’s revival by writer David Jones.

The series culminated in the May issue with Bill Stewart’s memorable account of the resurrection of 587, entitled “Our Friend, the 587.” If you have access to back issues of Trains, it’s really worth reading again. Bill called the 587 “the GP38-2 of her time,” and he was right, eloquently making this case: 

“Built by the people during the World War I rearmament and operated for the people in almost every imaginable capacity for four decades, the 587 could well be hailed as the most democratic steam locomotive still functioning today.”

The KSHC guys in Ravenna, Ky., have a long way to go before they can build another fire on the 587’s grates, but the first steps have been taken, and I’m confident the engine will once again chuff majestically through the cornfields of Indiana. Meanwhile, as he contemplates another chapter in 587’s amazing life, Bill Stewart draws inspiration from none other than Winston Churchill, whom he’s happy to quote: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It the courage to continue that counts.” 

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