Seeing C&O 1309 is believing

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, October 29, 2020

Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 1309's fearsome front end looks ready for action inside the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad's shop near Cumberland, Md. Kevin P. Keefe
As anyone who follows steam restorations knows, bringing a big engine back to life is a marathon, never a sprint. Union Pacific and its Big Boy notwithstanding, nearly every organization that has gotten into the game quickly discovered it would be a long and sometimes agonizing haul.

I have firsthand knowledge. When I began scraping my knuckles on a Berkshire in college, it was 1971. That engine, Pere Marquette 1225, wouldn’t turn a wheel under its own power for another 15 years. 

So, I have a lot of empathy for the crew that’s been at it for a while in a locomotive shop on a back street in tiny Ridgeley, W.Va. Inside, a magnificent engine — Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 No. 1309 — is gradually and inexorably coming back to life. I wouldn’t bet against the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (WMSR). One day soon, their dream of seeing the 1309 climb nearby Helmstetter’s Curve will come true.

I had a chance to drop in on the 1309 a couple of weeks ago and came away impressed. Several members of the WMSR crew were at work, plugging away on a number of aspects of the restoration. The engine looked remarkably complete. As WMSR Executive Director John Garner put it, “We’re 95 percent of the way there.”

That’s good news for this longtime C&O fan. Looking at the compound Mallet stretched out along the inspection pit, a number of adjectives — gorgeous, monstrous, long-legged — occurred to me. Then I gazed at its gleaming front, crammed with air pumps, flying number boards, oval smokebox door, and that low-slung headlight, and I settled on “fearsome.” 

Year-old 1309 doubleheads with sister 1302 on a loaded coal train 3 miles upgrade from Scarlet, W.Va., in June 1950. Eugene Huddleston, courtesy C&O Historical Society (
I became aware of the 1309 nearly 50 years ago on page 142 of C&O Power, one of those great Al Staufer books co-authored by Eugene Huddleston and Philip Schuster. Not knowing much about C&O steam at the time, I was flabbergasted to read that in 1948 C&O ordered 10 H-6 class 2-6-6-2s whose basic design traced back to 1910. In fact, the 1309 was part of the last order of domestic engines ever built by Baldwin.

The 1309 and its nine sisters, numbered 1300–1309, were nearly identical to 45 earlier versions of the H-6, built in the early 1920s by Alco at Schenectady and Richmond. Although the railroad’s original 1948 plan was to buy 25 of the engines, it later reduced the order when labor problems in the mines suppressed coal traffic and revenues. The new Mallets were assigned to the Logan (W.Va.) district working out of its Peach Creek terminal. 

The authors of C&O Power underscored what was obvious: “It is quite ironic that when the demise of steam power came to the C&O, it was the old standard 1910 compound Mallet design, in the form of H-4 and H-6 engines, that were holding the last stronghold. The super-power Hudson, Greenbrier, Kanawha, Texas, and Allegheny types had gone down to defeat previously, providing the old, plodding workhorse 2-6-6-2s with the last laugh.” Sort of reminded me of the staying power of Y6b 2-8-8-2s over on Norfolk & Western. 

C&O 1309 dominates the WMSR shop at Ridgeley, W.Va. WMSR estimates the restoration is 95 percent complete, but some $75,000 is still required. Kevin P. Keefe
Fast forward to now. The 1309 has been on a long journey since escaping static display at the B&O Museum and coming to Ridgeley a few years ago. Acquired to provide more power than WMSR’s regular engine, ex-Lake Superior & Ishpeming 2-8-0 No. 734, the 1309 has endured all manner of setbacks, from the usual unexpected mechanical challenges to the theft of some key parts to the vagaries of fund-raising. But recent infusions of cash, some of it sparked by a campaign sponsored by Trains magazine as well as a $50,000 gift from the Emery Rail Heritage Trust, have helped. Trains recently reported the 1309 project has cost $2.8 million to date. 

Now, with the boiler and several other large systems completed, the 1309 crew is zeroing in on a number of final tasks, including air-brake piping, brake-rigging, cab interior, assembling the stoker engine, installing the main rods, and finishing the piston rings and pistons. 

As close as they might be to running the engine, fund-raising remains Job No. 1, says Garner.  “We can’t comment on test runs,” he told me. “It involves so many facets, the largest of which is donation-related. As long as the donations continue to arrive, work shall continue. Without donations, the work will not continue.” At this point he estimates WMSR needs to raise another approximately $75,000. The railroad operates as a not-for-profit 501(c)3 heritage corporation.

The 1309 project has suffered more than its share of setbacks over the years, but the spirit of the restoration crew remains undimmed. Kevin P. Keefe
Like everyone in the heritage railroad business, WMSR has been hurt by Covid-19 restrictions and the nearly complete shutdown of revenue operations. Through it all, Garner and his crew have kept a positive attitude. Looking at the 1309 under the shop lights, I could understand why.

“Being able to work on a Baldwin steam locomotive built in 1949 is indeed a privilege,” Garner says. “It takes humility to ask for support in such a project, and it’s humbling to know that so many donors believe enough in this restoration project to make the donations they have. Without their assistance, this project would not be moving full steam ahead.”

Would that longtime Trains Editor David P. Morgan were around to seeing what’s going on in Ridgeley. Writing about C&O 2-6-6-2s in the 1950s, he said: “This was the engine to write ‘30’ on anyone’s last look at Chesapeake & Ohio in steam, for she typified the railway far more than any Pacific or 2-8-4 or even Allegheny. A photogenic compound, using her energy twice, clanking her rods along beneath a rather mushy exhaust . . . nice.”

Looks like we’ll get another chance, D.P.M. Meanwhile, I have no reservations about urging support for this remarkable locomotive. If you’re interested in contributing, gifts marked for 1309 can be sent to Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, 13 Canal Street, Cumberland, MD 21502, or made online at

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