Why K4 1361 matters

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Pennsylvania Railroad K4s 4-6-2 5411 — a sister to No. 1361, subject of a reinvigorated restoration effort — forges through a snowstorm in Grif Teller's iconic painting On Time.
There are so many mainline steam restorations going on now, the mind reels. Where to begin? Are you excited about the prospect of seeing Santa Fe 4-8-4 2926 rolling again? How about Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis 4-8-4 576? Or Chesapeake & Ohio 2-8-4 2716? We might even see two Reading 4-8-4s before long. And kudos to the Western Maryland Scenic for hitting the finish line a few months ago with C&O 2-6-6-2 1309.

What’s really got me excited now is the news out of the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona, Pa., where, seemingly out of the blue, Pennsylvania Railroad K4s 1361 is poised to escape purgatory. A couple of weeks ago, the museum’s chairman, former NS and Amtrak CEO Wick Morman, unveiled a $2.6 million campaign to get the 1361 back on the “great broad way.” Now we’re talking!

I didn’t come along soon enough, and wasn’t in the right place, to see a K4 in regular service. But I fell under its spell in 1965 when an aunt and uncle in Philadelphia bought me a set of art prints the PRR was selling, reproductions of calendar paintings by the great Grif Teller. Most of the art was blatantly commercial — idealized scenes with multiple trains, unapologetically selling PRR mythology.

But one stood out. It was, of course, Teller’s masterpiece, On Time, showing K4 5411 hustling a passenger train through a fearsome snowstorm. Here, Teller played it straight, portraying a machine — and a railroad — working its guts out under the toughest conditions. This was fine art, not commercial art. 

It was also a testimonial for a great class of 425 locomotives, most of them built in the Altoona shops. The K4 became a lasting symbol of the railroad, from its earliest assignments on PRR’s heavyweight limiteds of the 1920s to its commuter runs on the New York & Long Branch in the late 1950s. As one of only two survivors (K4 3750 resides at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg), the 1361 was destined to symbolize the PRR legend. 

After three decades on display at the Horseshoe Curve, K4 1361 was reactivated in April 1987, only to be sidelined the following year by mechanical and other problems. She paused at Tyrone, Pa., on her April 12, 1987, break-in run. Dan Cupper
The on-again, off-again life of 1361 since its original 1987 restoration has been a frequent subject of conversation in steam preservation circles, a checkered story summarized in Dan Cupper’s comprehensive June 25 news report for the Trains News Wire. Looking back over those 34 years, it’s hard to argue that what’s going on now in Altoona is any less than a miracle. 

One of the people charged with making the miracle happen will be Davidson Ward, president of FMW Solutions LLC, the engineering firm that will oversee the restoration. Ward is getting to be an old hand at this sort of thing, with several locomotive projects under his team’s belt. But the 1361 will be special. Old school as it might be (PRR built the engine at Altoona in 1918), the K4 has significance way beyond its simple, pre-Super Power wheel arrangement. Like the DC-3 in another arena, the K4 was an engineering marvel.

“The K4 was the first scientifically designed locomotive, wherein the railroad undertook a progressive series of tests at Altoona on predecessor models, tweaking various components to improve the design,” explains Ward. “The concept of commonality in components between the K4s and L1s (2-8-2) locomotives is something more similar to modern railroading than the preceding era. Between the K4s and L1s classes, the PRR at one time had nearly 1,000 locomotives in service with essentially the same boiler and many shared parts.”

Ward would get complete agreement from the late Bill Withuhn, longtime Smithsonian curator and author of American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960. In his book, Withuhn wrote that the K4 was an essential step in the march toward the ultimate machines of the 1930s and ’40s.

Smithsonian curator and steam-locomotive authority Bill Withuhn puts 1361 through its paces on July 26, 1987. Kevin P. Keefe 
“The legacy of the K4s was pervasive,” Withuhn explained. “The standardized locomotives developed by U.S. engineers in 1918 for United States Railroad Administration in several classes — designs which became popular on a number of railroads even after the war — were influenced by the K4’s proportions. Every class of heavy passenger engine developed later in the U.S. was affected.”

Ward and his team have already determined that the 1361 is eminently restorable, provided the funds get raised. As with all engines, it starts with the boiler. Reminiscent of Altoona’s processes of an earlier era, the FMW team is subjecting it to deep analysis. 

“During our engineering study of 1361, we used the very latest in non-destructive testing technology to verify the makeup of steel alloys used to repair the boiler in past efforts,” Ward explains. “This included employing laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy to verify the type and suitability of steel alloys used by previous contractors to repair the boiler. This analysis revealed a few dozen rivets that had already been installed but which have a carbon content too high for boiler usage — these will be replaced.”

Ward said the team is also using what’s called “finite element analysis” to redesign perhaps the most distinctive thing on the locomotive, its Belpaire firebox. Ward says the updates will not impact the appearance of the engine — the distinctive squared-off Belpaire is as emblematic of the Pennsy as its keystone — but will enable it to meet today’s FRA safety standards. “It’s a nice tie-in to be able to follow in the PRR’s historic use of engineering and cutting-edge technology to help put the boiler back into service,” Ward says.

Modern testing methods indicate that 1361's boiler and firebox are in better shape than previously thought, pointing to an easier road to restoration. Davidson Ward
With the aid of the extensive mechanical archives of the Railroaders Memorial Museum, FMW and the rest of the 1361 team have developed a boiler restoration plan that has won “concurrence” from the Federal Railroad Administration, a key benchmark toward operation. Meanwhile, the museum is going ahead with that fund-raising campaign, led by Moorman and oriented it around museum memberships

I’ve already joined, an impulse made up of equal parts admiration and obligation. I feel the latter keenly, having ridden the 1361’s cab on July 26, 1987, on a return trip from Bellefonte, Pa., to Altoona that could only be described as a dream. Bill Withuhn himself was at the throttle, alternately coaxing and spanking the big Pacific through its paces. 

What I remember most about that particular ride was the sound of the 1361’s boiler, a basso profundo rumble coming from deep within, like Metallica on a good night. Bill couldn’t help but remark upon it, too, averring that the old engine sounded more authoritative than even he expected. Let’s hope the Railroaders Memorial Museum makes its goal. I’d love to hear that sound again.  

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