Reading Camelback is back in the spotlight

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, July 16, 2020

Pint-sized Reading 0-4-0 1187 stands at Wilmington, Del., in May 1937, long before it became one of only three Camelbacks to survive — and the only one to operate after — the steam era. Harold K. Vollrath collection
Never underestimate the steam locomotive’s ability to still make news, even in 2020. That goes double if it involves the obscure, the rare, the nearly forgotten. Old engines have a way of creeping back into the spotlight.

Case in point: the sale this week of former Philadelphia & Reading 0-4-0 No. 1187, a Camelback-style engine owned and stored for decades by the Strasburg Rail Road, one of our leading tourist lines. Strasburg concluded a long time ago that 1187 didn’t figure in its operating plan, so it finally put the little engine up for bid this week. The winner was the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum of Sugarcreek, Ohio.

Now the 1187 will join Age of Steam’s growing and eclectic collection of engines, kept safe and sound inside the 18-stall roundhouse built in 2012 by founder Jerry Joe Jacobson, who died in 2017. In recent years the museum has greatly expanded public access, so, at some point down the road, visitors will have a chance to see No. 1187 in pristine condition.

Age of Steam Executive Director Noel Poirier had this to say in the organization’s press release: “The addition of this historically significant locomotive to the museum’s collection was important due to our founder Jerry Joe Jacobson’s long desire to acquire, restore, and display it. We are ecstatic and proud to honor Mr. Jacobson’s legacy by successfully acquiring No. 1187.”

Retired by the Reading in 1954, the Camelback found a second career as No. 4 at Colorado Fuel & Iron's E. & G. Brooke plant in Birdsboro, Pa. Age of Steam Roundhouse collection
The rescue of any steam engine is noteworthy, even an 0-4-0, and that’s especially true for a Camelback. In addition to the 1187, there are only two others extant in the United States: Delaware, Lackawanna & Western 4-4-0 No. 952 at the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, and Central of New Jersey 4-4-2 No. 592 at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Two other engines — B&O 4-6-0 No. 173 at St. Louis and B&O 4-6-0 No. 305 at Baltimore — are similar but much older 19th-century machines technically classified as “Camels.”

The Camelback thrived on a very limited basis in the Northeast, where several railroads took advantage of anthracite coal and its concomitant need for the wide Wootten-style firebox. As such, it made for an unusual arrangement for the engine crew, a situation described eloquently in Age of Steam’s press release:

“The fireman shoveled coal into the huge firebox in the usual manner, but from his own small, open-side cab located where the locomotive’s larger cab was normally located. Therefore, engineer and fireman had to work in two separate locations on the same engine, a situation that could be dangerous during the operation of the locomotive. Perched in his cab located atop a Camelback’s hot boiler, the engineer roasted during the summers, and working in his open-air cab during the winters, the fireman froze.”

As Strasburg Rail Road No. 4, the 0-4-0 hauled tourist trains intermittently in the early 1960s, as in this July 1965 view, until it was set aside as too light for road work. H. Reid
That was life on the 1187 for more than five decades. Baldwin turned out the switcher, class A-4a, in 1903 for the Philadelphia & Reading, a Reading Company subsidiary absorbed into the larger system in 1924. When the Reading retired the 0-4-0 in 1954, it was scooped up by the E. & G. Brooke Iron Co. (part of the Colorado Fuel & Iron empire) beside the Reading main line in Birdsboro, Pa., where it continued to operate in industrial service as No. 4.

An interesting side note: during its Birdsboro days, the little 0-4-0 often exchanged whistle greetings with its old Reading T-1 brethren when, beginning in 1959, the big 4-8-4s hauled Iron Horse Rambles excursions past the Brooke plant. 

In 1962, Brooke sold the Camelback to the Strasburg, where it earned the unique status of being the only locomotive to arrive at the Road to Paradise property under its own steam. The hardy little 0-4-0 helped the tourist line get off the ground, but its 50-inch drivers and mere 20,890 lbs. of tractive force quickly proved inadequate once the tourists began showing up in large numbers. Mostly sidelined, it made its last Strasburg trip on May 7, 1967, when it hauled a fan trip for the Baltimore Chapter, NRHS.

Not surprisingly, former Strasburg President Linn Moedinger can get a bit wistful thinking about the Camelback. “We tried for many years to justify restoring the 1187 but could never responsibly do it from the fare box,” he told me. “I remember chasing it with my dad while he took movies. That being said, I can’t think of a better place for it to go.”

After restoration to its Reading 1187 identity and a spell on display at the adjacent Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, the 0-4-0 returned to Strasburg property, where it deteriorated further. Now it has a secure future in Ohio. Mitch Goldman
Although he will not be around to witness the arrival of the Camelback at his incredible engine terminal, Jerry Joe Jacobson certainly would be pleased to see what his successors have accomplished. He went at collecting steam locomotives with an open-ended agenda, amassing a roster that ranges from imposing Grand Trunk Western 4-8-4 No. 6325 to tiny Carnegie Steel 0-4-0T No. 14, and lots in between. 

Jacobson had a thing for small engines — the “rare and different,” says his old friend John B. Corns — and I’ve been told he had kept an eye on the 1187 for years after visiting Strasburg in the 1980s, when the 0-4-0 was getting attention in an asbestos abatement tent. Jacobson surprisingly eschewed Shays, Climaxes, and other geared engines. No, with him a steam locomotive had to have rods. 

According to Age of Steam, there are no plans to restore the Camelback to operating condition. But the museum’s ample resources will allow for a first-class cosmetic restoration at some point after the engine arrives in Sugarcreek by truck later this summer. It will be a welcome fate for something so rare as a Camelback.

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