A train worth remembering: LV’s 'John Wilkes'

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, January 28, 2021

Otto Kuhler-styled Pacific 2102 heads west from Newark with the brand-new John Wilkes circa 1939. Wm. Weddmeyer
Coming up with topics for this blog every week means occasionally checking various “this day in railroad history” files, and one notation I stumbled upon this week was too good to pass up.  

The Lehigh Valley Railroad disappeared on April 1, 1976, as one of the six bankrupt Northeast carriers swallowed up in the creation of Conrail. Thus ended an approximately 130-year run for a railroad known for its attachment to coal (notably anthracite); its huge and capable shops at Sayre, Pa.; and for three special passenger trains, the Asa PackerBlack Diamond, and, of most interest to me, the John Wilkes

It will be 60 years ago this coming Wednesday that we mark the last run of the flashy John Wilkes, an evening New York-to-Wilkes-Barre (originally Pittston) and morning return train borne of the excitement of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and linked forever with the celebrated industrial designer Otto Kuhler.

The sight of the John Wilkes must have been thrilling for onlookers worn out by the long, monochromatic years of the Great Depression. Gleaming in its Cornell red and black paint scheme and led by one of Kuhler’s more audacious streamlined creations, trains 28 and 29 pointed toward a brighter future. Never mind that the 4-6-2 up front was already nearly 25 years old.

The LV introduced the John Wilkes on June 4, 1939, running between New York’s Penn Station and Pittston with an engine change in Newark, N.J., from a Pennsylvania Railroad electric to either LV’s 2101 or 2102, class K-5 Pacifics built in 1916 by Baldwin. The engines bore little resemblance to their earlier appearance, what with Boxpok disc drivers, new lightweight valve gear, high-tensile alloy steel side and main rods, and that bullet-nose shrouding of the boiler. The nose below the smokebox was distinguished by a red vertical fin and corresponding stainless-steel horizontal fins, with cab windows and other sections set off with polished aluminum trim. 

Artwork on the cover of a brochure promoting the new train emphasized its futuristic-looking motive power.
The typically nine-car train that followed was equally striking, with black roofs, red letter-boards above the windows, black window panels, and red below to the skirting. At first, the trains consisted of a baggage-express car, one mail-baggage, one smoker with a separate ladies’ smoking lounge, three coaches, one club car, one diner, and one Pullman parlor car. The LV boasted of air conditioning in all cars, which had become the standard for all but the lowliest trains, and also newfangled fluorescent lighting, which had not.

What impresses me most about the Wilkes is that so much of the conversion work — including the streamlining of the 4-6-2s — was done at Sayre, a shop known for taking on big challenges. Although the coaches for the new train were new “American Flyer” cars built by Pullman-Standard’s Osgood Bradley plant, the rest of the consist was converted from older heavyweight cars. The entire project was supervised by LV’s Superintendent of Motive Power J. P. Laux, with Kuhler serving as “consulting engineer.”

Often overshadowed in the region by larger railroads, LV nevertheless cranked up its own modest publicity machine for the 1939 inaugural, featuring black-and-red depictions of the streamlined Pacific going full tilt through the mountains and touting the easy connection to the World’s Fair via 10-cent rides out of Penn Station on the Long Island Rail Road: “You can enter the Fair refreshed and ready to enjoy the hours crammed with interest and fun which await you!”

And for those unfamiliar with the train’s name, this explanation: “John Wilkes was an ardent defender of the American Colonial rights in the British House of Commons during the reign of George III and was honored in the naming of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. It is fitting that his name is to be used again to designate this latest addition to the Lehigh Valley’s fleet, serving as it does Wilkes-Barre in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania, today the capital of this anthracite region.”

Lehigh Valley’s two other most notable trains, the New York–Buffalo Black Diamond, considered to be the railroad’s flagship, and the New York–Wilkes-Barre Asa Packer, received the same Fair-oriented publicity.

Less than four months before the John Wilkes' final run, PA 613 rolls the train east at Flemington Junction, N.J., on October 12, 1960. Dick Steinbrenner
Like so many dedicated-consist trains introduced just before the war — the New York Central’s Empire State Expresscomes to mind — the John Wilkes would gradually see other cars move in and out the lineup, but the train retained much of its appeal into the 1950s, especially after gorgeous red-and-black Alco PA diesels began supplanting steam in 1948. 

The Lehigh Valley was never a major player in the passenger business, its offerings barely filling five pages in the Official Guide. But management always endeavored to offer quality. Alas, the Black Diamond and Asa Packer were discontinued in 1959. At the time, LV management said it was losing $4 million a year on its passenger trains. 

That left the John Wilkes and one other train — LV’s share of Canadian National’s Toronto-New York Maple Leaf — to carry on for another two years. In 1959, the Wilkes’ western terminus was cut back to Lehighton, and on February 3, 1961, LV’s final two intercity trains made their last runs. Five days later, with the end of a no-longer-needed connecting service between Lehighton and Hazleton, LV joined the growing list of freight-only carriers.

Minor player as it might have been, in its first decade the John Wilkes was one of the more notable creations of Otto Kuhler, and should be remembered as such. As David P. Morgan wrote of Kuhler, “In 1928, he created streamlining as railroading knew it, personally preached its sales message to both the industry and its public, and wound up with more design credits than Cret, Dreyfuss, and Loewy combined.” 

Of all Kuhler’s memorable design projects — the Milwaukee Road’s F7 4-6-4s, Alco’s DL109 diesel, Gulf, Mobile & Northern’s Rebel streamliner — I’d have to believe the master designer would rate his John Wilkes near the top. 

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