Great expectations: Santa Fe 2926

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Smoke rises from the stack of a Santa Fe 2900-class Northern for the first time in more than six decades as engine 2926 undergoes its first steam-up of its long restoration effort. Bill Diven
Drivers on 8th Street N.W. on the north edge of downtown Albuquerque were likely doing a double take one day last week as they crossed a nondescript industrial siding near Haines Avenue and looked immediately west.

There, back among some small buildings, a group of people wearing hard hats and safety vests were clambering all over an immense steam locomotive, like Lilliputians attending to Gulliver. Voices called out commands. Eventually a column of smoke rose steadily from the stack. Occasionally, steam poured out from around the cylinders.

The comparison with Jonathon Swift’s most famous character is apt, because the machine in the midst of all this high drama is truly a giant: Santa Fe No. 2926, one of 30 such machines delivered by Baldwin Locomotive Works at the height of World War II. Thanks to wartime restrictions on steel alloys, the Santa Fe 2900s were the heaviest 4-8-4s ever built.

Now, it appears the 2926 is on the cusp of running again following last week’s successful fire-up, the first for the 4-8-4 since it was retired in 1953. The locomotive’s owners, the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Society, took the boiler up to 260 psi, short of the engine’s operating pressure of 300 psi, but enough to know that, other than a few expected leaks and minor glitches, that big boiler is sound.

Santa Fe 2908 cuts an impressive figure at the head of a westbound freight approaching Olathe, Kans., on Jan. 8, 1950. Like other 4-8-4s, the 2900s were exemplary dual-service engines. Don Smith
Here’s how John Taylor, a member of the organization put it: “Seeing fire in her belly and smoke from the stack for the first time in 65 years was some of the prettiest sights we have ever seen.” Indeed.

With a successful steam-up in the books, the Society’s next step will be to test the various rebuilt appliances, including compressors, dynamos, and hot and cold water pumps. Following that, the pistons will be re-installed. 

There is a lot of ferment in the world of mainline steam these days, with several big engines either already in steam or heading in that direction (can you say “Union Pacific 4014?”). For me, none is more exciting than the prospect of seeing the 2926 run again. Whenever I see action photos of one of the 2900s — witness Jim Ady’s stirring image here of the 2926 herself on Cajon Pass, courtesy of Stan Kistler — I keep coming up with the word “lordly.” There is something regal about these machines. 

Certainly Santa Fe went all out with what turned out to be the last steam locomotives the railroad would ever buy. Each of the 2900s tipped the scale at an incredible 510,150 pounds. By comparison, Union Pacific’s 800-series engines, the 4-8-4s most often compared with the 2900s, weighed in at 483,000 pounds. 

The 2926 herself roars down Cajon Pass with the westbound Grand Canyon in August 1948. The stack extension is raised, but the exhaust is absolutely clear. Jim Ady, Stan Kistler coll.
All that mass rode upon 80-inch disc drivers. After the war, the 2900s’ running gear was outfitted with lightweight roller-bearing rods. Backing up the 4-8-4 was a massive tender with a capacity of 7,000 gallons of fuel oil and 24,500 gallons of water, supported by a pair of eight-wheel trucks.

Size translated easily into performance, in both passenger and freight service. As Trains Editor David P. Morgan once wrote, “Few steam locomotives were so justifiably acclaimed as Santa Fe’s . . . Northerns. Huge and tireless creatures, they could and did cover the 1,765 miles between Kansas City and L.A. without change, conquer Raton’s 3 percent, and exceed 100 miles per hour.”

The 2926 was retired in December 1953. After decades of display in Albuquerque’s Coronado Park, the locomotive was acquired by the Society in 1999 and moved to its current work site a couple of years later. Quietly and steadily, the group has made an astounding amount of progress in recent years. The organization already has spent $2.5 million on the restoration and has invested approximately 170,000 man-hours in the project. 

In another view on Cajon Pass, No. 2927 helps three F units lift the eastbound Chief up the 2.2 percent grade on June 21, 1952. Robert Hale
As for where and how soon the 2926 might run, that remains up in the air. The group has been professional in its courting of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, owner of former AT&SF track between Belen and Lamy, 93 miles, and operator of the Rail Runner commuter operation between Belen and Santa Fe. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see 2926 running across its old territory? But traditional excursion partner Amtrak currently shuns special trains, throwing everything into a cocked hat. 

Despite that, I wouldn’t bet against the 2926 and its crew. They have already worked miracles getting this far, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll be deterred in their quest to see those tall drivers blurring once again along the old Santa Fe. Soon, they’ll understood just how veteran AT&SF engineer Jack Elwood did whenever he was called to run a 2900. 

“It was always a treat to get these big, new engines,” Elwood wrote in Classic Trains’ special edition Steam Glory 3 in 2013. “When you had one on your train, you knew she would handle it with ease. Most of the time half the throttle would suffice. This was such a satisfying feeling for the engine crew, that you would hope that next trip you would have another of these magnificent locomotives.”

The 2926 crew is going to have that very same satisfaction when — not if — they get their giant back on the road.

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