Hall of Fame honors Woodard, Gurley

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, June 25, 2020

William E. Woodard, the Lima Locomotive Works engineer who conceived of Super Power steam, was recently inducted into the National Railroad Hall of Fame. Classic Trains collection 
The National Railroad Hall of Fame continues to distinguish itself by calling attention to some of the giants of railroading. Last week, the Hall, based in Galesburg, Ill., added two more names to its gallery of inductees: William E. Woodard, famed designer at Lima Locomotive Works; and Fred Gurley, legendary president during Santa Fe’s glory years of the 1940s and ’50s.

Organized in 1992, the Hall has done a lot to bring the names of prominent railroaders to a wider audience, including winning a Congressional imprimatur to back up that “national” designation. It boasts a wide spectrum of inductees, tilting toward early railroad builders and latter-day CEOs, with some industrial designers and labor leaders thrown in for good measure.

Full disclosure: I originally suggested adding Woodard after visiting last year with Hall Executive Director Julie King, and later wrote a nomination memo. It seemed to me that locomotive design was underrepresented at the Hall, and who better than the father of Super Power? The nomination of Gurley came from Jack Barriger, himself a Santa Fe veteran executive and longtime Hall supporter. 

Nominating Will Woodard to the Hall seemed like a natural thing for me to do. To my mind, he made possible the final 25 years of locomotive development, an era David P. Morgan coined as “steam’s finest hour.”

One of Woodard's most notable designs, Lima's 2-8-4 demonstrator locomotive No. 1, tests on a Milwaukee Road train in June 1925. Classic Trains collection
It’s difficult to overstate the impact in the 1920s of Woodard’s Super Power doctrine, which posited that the drag era was over and higher horsepower deserved primacy. The way to get it was with a more powerful boiler. And the key to gaining all that power was a larger firebox supported by a four-wheel trailing truck, along with other ancillary improvements. It was a simple, elegant philosophy, borne out by the first 2-8-4 ever built, the A-1 of 1925, a locomotive Lima President J. S. Coffin called “the finest piece of machinery I’ve ever seen.”   

It’s fair to say that the other two major builders — Alco and Baldwin — were heading in the same direction as Lima and that either one eventually might have arrived at something like the A-1. Within a couple of years of that first Berkshire, they were all building engines with four-wheel trailing trucks. But the fact is, Lima got there first, and in fine style. Those demonstration runs by the A-1 bring to mind the same impact Electro-Motive would have in 1939–40 with its first FT diesel.

In tandem with customer New York Central, Lima rolled out the A-1 on the Boston & Albany and quickly showed that the 2-8-4 could outperform NYC’s best 2-8-2s by a margin of 26 percent more tonnage in 57 fewer minutes across the same mileage. The barnstorming tour that followed on several railroads — including Illinois Central, Milwaukee Road, and Chesapeake & Ohio — sealed the deal.

Woodard had already built a wide-ranging resumé by the time he got to Lima: graduate of Cornell’s prestigious Sibley engineering school; stints in Philadelphia at both Cramp’s Shipyard and Baldwin; work for several suppliers, including American Arch, the Superheater Company, and Franklin Railway Supply; and, most importantly, time with locomotive designer Francis Cole at Alco, during which Woodard helped design USRA engines.

Engineering prowess aside, Woodard mastered other aspects of the business. He had a high-level view, noted historian William L. Withuhn: “Woodard thought about the locomotive as part of a larger system of moving traffic in a given unit of time, with the locomotive generating both revenues and costs in a subtle economic relationship.”

Fred Gurley earned a place in the Hall because of his inspired leadership of the Santa Fe Railway during the 1940s and '50s. Classic Trains collection
Fred Gurley exhibited that same kind of all-encompassing command. He first made his name in the operating department of the Burlington, only to be lured away to Santa Fe in 1939, coming in as executive vice president. He assumed the presidency in August 1944. 

The Santa Fe underwent a nearly complete transformation under Gurley. It was most visible along the railroad’s Chicago–Los Angeles main line, where he oversaw the installation of heavier rail, eased curves and grades, installed improved signaling and introduced CTC, and rebuilt or strengthened hundreds of bridges, exemplified by the magnificent Canyon Diablo Bridge between Winslow and Flagstaff. 

That wasn’t all. Gurley pushed dieselization hard after the initial introduction of the FT. In order to keep that momentum going after Pearl Harbor, he helped Santa Fe get special dispensation from the War Production Board to keep the diesels coming, more than any other Western road. After the war, the conversion continued apace and by 1956 regular-service steam was gone.

Gurley also never lost faith in Santa Fe’s storied passenger business, presiding over the revolutionary introduction of the Hi-Level Budd cars on the El Capitan of 1956. “Today, every passenger aboard an Amtrak Superliner car, which is descended directly from those high-levels, owes a prayer of thanks for Fred Gurley,” wrote Fred W. Frailey.

An early achievement during Gurley's 1944–59 presidency was a new bridge over Canyon Diablo on the Santa Fe's main line across northern Arizona, pictured in 1946. Santa Fe
At the same time, Gurley led the railroad to becoming a leader in piggyback and container service, to this very day a hallmark of successor BNSF. Gurley retired as president in 1959 and stayed on as a director until 1964.

In his nomination, Barriger called Gurley one of the most influential railroad leaders of his era, one whose impact lingers on today’s BNSF. “About 1948, Fortune magazine called Santa Fe ‘America’s Number One Railway,’” Barriger wrote. “Today, he should be given the title of Father of BNSF’s Southern Transcon, the railroad’s heaviest-duty and most productive route.”

The Hall of Fame does good work in Galesburg, raising the profile of people whom, as its mission states, “changed the face of America.” This year’s inductees are worthy of that legacy.

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