Most years, ‘summer’ means ‘NRHS’

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, August 13, 2020

Union Pacific 8444 performs for a gallery of appreciative fans on Wyoming's Harriman Line during the 1963 NRHS convention, based at Denver. John Gruber
In any normal summer, by this week several of my friends would be packing for a favorite seasonal tradition, the annual convention of the National Railway Historical Society. For years it was also a fixture on my July or August calendars, an event I relished for its usual promise of mainline steam and rare mileage. Mostly, it would be a chance to see old friends.

Alas, it’s not happening this year for me, or for anyone else. On June 7, the NRHS announced that its 2020 convention, planned for Buena Park, Calif., near Anaheim, was canceled — one more victim of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There’s no point in going into a long lament about this. National events of far more gravity have been washed away by the pandemic. I feel badly for the NRHS, its local chapter hosts, and all the members who were looking forward to being in Buena Park, but I also lament a thousand other things we’ve lost this year. 

During another event at the 1963 NRHS convention, Great Western 2-10-0 No. 90 and Burlington 4-8-4 No. 5632 converged at Longmont, Colo. John Gruber
Despite all that, I found myself smiling this week as I looked back more than a few years, to a time when NRHS was a highlight of my summers. Some favorites came to mind — Knoxville in 1975, Roanoke in 1987, St. Louis in 1990 — but I also felt compelled to go back deeper into NRHS history, using back issues of Trains to look up events before my time. There were some doozies.

Oh, to have been in Cleveland back in 1956, when conventioneers rode behind a Baltimore & Ohio 2-8-2 and sampled the Shaker Heights rapid transit. Or a year later, when NRHS convened in Roanoke, there to witness the waning majesty of Norfolk & Western steam as well as have the unprecedented opportunity to ride behind Virginian electric motors. And how lucky the attendees were in 1958 in Toronto, where Canadian National gave them the chance to see steam being overhauled in the lofty Stratford Shops. The shop closed just months later.

Had I not been merely 10 years old, Chicago would have been the place to be over Labor Day in 1961. The highlights were separate trips behind two 4-8-4s: Burlington’s No. 5632 on a round trip out to Dubuque and Grand Trunk Western No. 6323 to South Bend and back. It’s so sad to think that 5632 would be unceremoniously scrapped a few years later, but at least the 6323 survives at the Illinois Railway Museum.

The 1970 NRHS convention, based at Charleston, S.C., featured Southern Railway 2-8-0 722 and 2-8-2 4501 on a trip over the ex-Atlantic Coast Line to Savannah, Ga., that included a photo runby at Jacksonboro, S.C. George G. Weiss
As if riding behind two Northerns wasn’t enough, the Chicago conventioneers got some icing on the cake in the form of interurban trips on South Shore Line’s big orange cars and North Shore Line Silverliners. I logged hundreds of miles in those South Shore cars but, sadly, the North Shore escaped my grasp.

Two years later the NRHS might have topped Chicago when it convened in Denver for another blockbuster. Burlington’s 5632 took another star turn, the O-5A coming all the way out from Chicago, and Union Pacific 4-8-4 No. 8444, wearing its initial post-dieselization number, put on a big show on Sherman Hill. Steam got quaint with an excursion featuring long-legged Great Western 2-10-0 No. 90. The big show impressed Trains Editor David P. Morgan so much that he allotted four pages for it in the December 1963 issue, showcasing the work of an up and coming photographer named John Gruber.

Speaking of Morgan, the Editor was a regular at many of the NRHS conventions, usually sitting back in a coach somewhere with his wife, Margaret, quietly soaking in the action. After the September 1970 convention in Charleston, S.C., Morgan was moved to write a short essay to go with a stirring photograph by his pal George C. Weiss, showing doubleheaded Southern 2-8-0 No. 722 and 2-8-2 No. 4501.

The NRHS convened at Roanoke, Va., citadel of the former Norfolk & Western, in 1987. Norfolk Southern put on a spectacular show, running N&W 2-6-6-4 1218 and   4-8-4 611 side by side up Christianburg Hill. Donald M. Murphy
Wrote DPM: “I remember so well this photo runby as the Consolidation/Mikado tandem came toward us, making like a Ps-2/Ps-4 team on the Piedmont, wheeling past under whistles raucous and melodious, reaffirming the good judgment of W. Graham Claytor Jr.”

My own NRHS memories started in 1975 in Knoxville, where my buddy John B. Corns and I got a heavy dose of Southern 4501, riding for mile after glorious mile in Southern’s fabulous Lookout Mountain observation car, as well as a trip with Clinchfield 4-6-0 No. 1. 

If you want an argument about “greatest NRHS conventions,” you might start by mentioning either Roanoke in 1987 or St. Louis in 1990. As a new associate editor at Trains, I drew the lucky card and got to attend both for the magazine. 

From the perspective of 33 years, Roanoke seems like a dream. This was all about showcasing Norfolk & Western J-class 4-8-4 No. 611 and its just-restored stablemate, A-class 2-6-6-4 No. 1218. The dramatic highlight was the blockbuster side-by-side trip in which the J and the A paced each other up Christiansburg Mountain, the 4-8-4 hauling fans, the articulated muscling a train of 49 empty hoppers and a caboose. NRHS Chairman V. Allen Vaughn called the thunderous stunt “steam choreography.” 

Four years after Roanoke, steam paralleled steam again during the 1991 NRHS convention at Huntington, W.Va., when two Berkshires — Nickel Plate 765 and Pere Marquette 1225 — took the little town of Hurricane by storm. John B. Corns
But if you thought the NRHS couldn’t top that, then you might have missed the conventions in St. Louis in 1990 and Huntington, W.Va., in 1991. 

The stifling heat in St. Louis just made steam fans even more feverish as they luxuriated in the appearance of four — four! — mainline locomotives, all gathered briefly together at Union Station. The hometown favorite was Frisco 4-8-2 No. 1522, but on the adjacent tracks were fantastic distractions in the form of Union Pacific 4-8-4 No. 844 (back to its original number), Cotton Belt 4-8-4 No. 819, and N&W 1218, having arrived on the traditional Independence Limited ferry trip. All four had ample opportunities to strut their stuff and burnish their legends.

But a year later, St. Louis had nothing on Huntington, which fielded the 1218 again but mainly showcased two Lima-built Super Power engines, Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765 and its Pere Marquette cousin No. 1225. To see the two Berkshires cavorting on separate days — one a Roanoke-inspired side-by-side run to Hurricane, W.Va., the other a double-header to Hinton — left this observer speechless.

I’m speechless for other reasons this summer, wondering when so many of the things we love will be coming back. But I take some comfort in these NRHS summer memories, as well as in the national organization’s pledge that the convention will be back in 2021. So far, they’re not saying when or where, but I’m crossing my fingers.

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