Giant steps for Santa Fe 2926

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, August 3, 2021

July 24, 2021, became a red-letter day in steam preservation history when Santa Fe 4-8-4 2926 moved under its own power for the first time since the 1950s at the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society's yard in Albuquerque. Gail Kirby
It was September 1992 and I was standing along the Santa Fe main line just east of Chillicothe, Ill., staring at what looked like a mirage. Seen through waves of heat, an onrushing steam locomotive was only a couple of miles away, its headlight visible from the center of an immense black boiler, coming on at what must have been a good 70 mph.

Within moments all hell broke loose as Santa Fe No. 3751 blurred past in a roar, on its way west after a celebrated visit to the Midwest following its restoration in Los Angeles. I remember figuratively pinching myself, astounded that I’d just witnessed an AT&SF Northern at speed. What could be better than that?

Better than that? How about another Santa Fe 4-8-4? And one demonstrably bigger and more powerful?

That’s a tantalizing prospect now that AT&SF No. 2926, the subject of a years-long restoration in a small shop in central Albuquerque, has successfully completed its first post-restoration steam-up. On Saturday, July 24, the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society successfully moved the huge Baldwin under its own power on its shop track, marking a huge step forward for the organization. 

Engine 2922 hints at what made Santa Fe's 2900 class special as it helps diesels on the eastbound Grand Canyon Limited at East Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Paul Frederickson
The journey that 2926 has taken to get this point is a familiar one. In 1953 the Santa Fe gave the engine to the city of Albuquerque, which installed it in a park; in 2000 the NMSLRHS rescued the 4-8-4 from the elements and moved it indoors at its compound at 8th and Haines streets. Over the ensuing nearly two decades the crew tore the engine down, rebuilt the boiler and running gear and just about everything else, and put the mighty 4-8-4 back together again. 

If there’s any doubt about the euphoria that overtook the 2926 crew on July 24, just listen to the cheers you can overhear on one of the videos available on the NMSLRHS website. Even if the 4-8-4 only went back-and-forth on a few hundred feet of track, these were giant steps in the context of everything this group has been through. Just ask Chief Mechanical Officer Rick Kirby.

“It’s been an up and down journey to say the least,” says Kirby. “In one of our offices, we have various photos on the wall depicting various aspects of the restoration. One in particular is at the time the 2926 arrived on the restoration site, a sad neglected locomotive to be sure. On several occasions I gaze at that photo and remark to other volunteers in attendance and say, ‘What in the world were we thinking?’”

I think anyone who’s worked on big steam has asked themselves the same question at one point or another. A little blind faith goes a long way. Now that faith is beginning to pay off. 

Santa Fe 2916 brings the second section of the westbound Grand Canyon down Cajon Pass in November 1951. Robert Hale
When it comes to 4-8-4s, Kirby and his crew have the good fortune to work on one of the best, and certainly the largest. The U.S. was at war when Santa Fe ordered from Baldwin 30 engines in the 2900 class, all built in 1943-44; the 2926 was delivered in March 1944. Because of wartime metals restrictions, Baldwin couldn’t use some of the lightweight alloys previously available, so 2926 recorded a total engine weight of a whopping 510,150 pounds. In contrast, Union Pacific’s closely compared FEF-3 4-8-4s of 1944 weighed 490,700 pounds. 

Despite all that heft, the 2900s were thoroughbreds, putting 66,000 pounds of tractive force to work via a set of 80-inch drivers, backed by a massive tender carrying 7,000 gallons of fuel oil and 24,500 gallons of water, necessary for the Santa Fe’s vast distances. As David P. Morgan famously wrote: “Huge and tireless creatures, they could and did cover the 1,765 miles between Kansas City and L.A. without change, conquer Raton’s 3 percent, and exceed 100 miles per hour.” Steam author Robert A. Le Massena said the 2900s “possessed more potential power than any others.”

That power is visible in the accompanying photos from the Classic Trains files, depicting 2900s in their twilight years, their regal profiles punctuated so often by Santa Fe’s trademark extended smokestack.

Here's the Gand Canyon again, this time under the command of No. 2929, the last-built of Santa Fe's colossal 4-8-4s, west of Victorville, Calif., in September 1951. Green flags flanking the extended stack indicate that a second section of train 23 is following. Stan Kistler
So, what’s next for 2926? First there are some relatively minor mechanical projects to complete, including finishing the insulation and jacketing and some final painting. Also to be completed is installation of a hybrid Positive Train Control system, which the group has successfully tested with the cooperation of Union Pacific’s steam team in Cheyenne, Wyo. The final piece will be a PTC cab display.

Then there’s the obvious question: Where to run this magnificent machine? The assumption has always been that, eventually, NMSLRHS will work out an agreement to use the state of New Mexico’s segment of the former Santa Fe main line, the approximately 100 miles from Belen north to Lamy. Let’s hope that, over time, negotiations with the state and BNSF will bring the only logical conclusion.

Meanwhile, give the 2926 crew a chance to revel in what it has accomplished so far. As CMO Kirby explains, it’s been a team effort. A very big team.  

“We have hundreds of members who have never even seen this locomotive up close, but their monetary contributions have in a large part kept us going,” he says. “Our volunteers have come from all walks of like, including ministers, nuclear submarine drivers, mechanical and electrical engineers, machinists, pipefitters, welders, mechanical designers, furniture store owners, police officers, insurance adjusters, doctors, chemists, teachers, and aviation mechanics. The list goes on.” The crew includes Kirby’s wife, Gail, the organization’s secretary. 

It’s unimaginable that all this work won’t be rewarded. These guys deserve a chance to once again demonstrate the strength and style of a 2900. Another Santa Fe 4-8-4, roaring past in a blur? Why not?

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