Why C&O 2716 really matters

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, February 1, 2022

C&O 2716 awaits the highball to take a merchandiser west from Newport News, Va., in August 1951. Bill Taub photo
One day in 1929, the top mechanical talent of the Van Sweringen railroads — at that point including Chesapeake & Ohio, Erie, Nickel Plate, and Pere Marquette — met to change the trajectory, if not the fate, of the American steam locomotive.

They called themselves the Advisory Mechanical Committee. Gathering, presumably, inside the then-new Terminal Tower in Cleveland, they charged themselves with coming up with new machines that could deliver more ton miles at higher speeds and higher horsepower than anything previous. 

They were spectacularly successful. After an initial triumph in 1930 with the massive T-1 2-10-4 for C&O, a year later they did themselves one better, slide-ruling that original beast down a set of driving wheels to create what some consider the ultimate dual-service machine, the AMC 2-8-4. By any measure — financial, mechanical, operational — these thoroughbreds were transformational for the three railroads that bought them in quantity: NKP, PM, both of which called them Berkshires, and C&O.

Although it was late to the AMC 2-8-4 party, C&O ended up being the No. 1 operator, rostering 90 of the K-4 class engines they called the “Kanawha,” named for the river C&O’s main line follows in West Virginia. Chessie bought them in various quantities from both Alco and Lima, all in the years 1943-47. Like sister roads NKP and PM, the C&O found the Kanawhas to be a near-perfect blend of performance and reliability, which makes their terribly short careers all the more sad.

Here’s what the dean of C&O historians, Eugene Huddleston, had to say about the Kanawhas: “They were an immediate hit with both the road and yard crews, and the ‘Big Mikes,’ as the crews affectionately called them, soon became Chessie’s most versatile performers. At home in any road service, the K-4s were soon lugging coal drags, thundering along with merchandise trains, and speeding heavy passenger runs.”

Just look how commanding No. 2716 looks in the accompanying photo, ready to hustle a merchandise train out of Newport News in August 1951. 

A crowd gathers on Memorial Day, May 25, 1959, for the dedication of 2716 at the Kentucky Railway Museum in Louisville. C&O photo
It’s amazing to me that C&O had the good sense and foresight to save a dozen Kanawhas, scattered to various museums and park sites across the system. As far as I know, it’s the largest group of same-class mainline engines saved by a Class I railroad. I’ve long attributed that largesse to Cyrus Eaton, the railway’s maverick chairman in the 1950s and a man with a penchant for philanthropy. One of those lucky engines was 2716, donated to the Kentucky Railway Museum in 1959.

I was thinking of all this a couple of weeks ago as I drove east from Richmond, Ky., on Highway 52 and eventually entered the property of the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corp., gradually settling into its new digs in CSX Transportation’s former Ravenna shops. Hosted by KSHC’s T.J. Mahan, I was allowed to spend some time with 2716, now undergoing a slow but steady restoration inside the spacious car shop.

Even in a disassembled state, its tender parked elsewhere and its boiler jacket half-removed and marked up for repairs, the 2716 shows its AMC pedigree, a near-perfect marriage of high-capacity boiler, svelte running gear, and 69-inch drivers. I was especially impressed by the appearance of brand-new firebox sidesheets. Just being in the presence of such a machine was inspiring.

As anyone who follows railfan media knows, Kentucky Steam has already been making headlines, long before 2716 even turns a wheel. First there was the organization’s big coup, the 2018 acquisition of the Ravenna complex, a near-perfect place to conduct heavy-duty rail restoration. This was followed less than a year later by the engine’s move from New Haven, Ky., after KSHC reached an agreement to lease 2716 from KRM. And just a few weeks ago, Kentucky Steam and the Railroad Museum of New England announced a plan to host 2716 operations on the latter’s 19-mile tourist line in Connecticut.

Work continues on C&O 2716 at Kentucky Steam Heritage's shop at Ravenna, Ky. Kevin P. Keefe photo
That will be awhile, explains Kentucky Steam President Chris Campbell. “We’re about 30% complete,” he says. “A lot of the completeness part is just evaluating what needs to be done and getting things torn apart. The firebox is the largest portion of the restoration, and the sidesheets have been welded back in. The flexible staybolts will get attention next and we hope to concentrate on the firebox in 2022 to have it completed.”

One thing 2716 has going for it is that it was run relatively recently, first during a short stint in 1981-82 as part of the Southern Railway’s steam program, when it looked especially smart with its boiler-tube pilot and centered headlight, topped off by a sparkling bronze eagle. The K-4 ran again briefly under Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society auspices in 1996. “There is less to do on 2716 than on an engine that was been out in the weather for the past 60 years,” says Campbell. “Since we made an announcement this past December about operating opportunities in New England, we have devised a schedule for both accomplishing work and raising funds. We will be rolling that out later this winter.”

Campbell says the organization’s goal is to raise $200,000 in 2022. “If we get to that point,” he says, “we will be in an excellent position to really hammer down in 2023 to get 2716 finished. We are blessed to have an amazing shop complex in which to complete almost all the portions of the engine’s rebuild.” 

My time with 2716 was all too brief and I thanked Mahan for an excellent tour. I’m pulling for Kentucky Steam to make it, and not only because we can never get enough mainline steam. The fact is, the 2716 is a locomotive of consequence. The AMC Berkshire and Kanawha was a landmark design during “steam’s finest hour,” something that’s proven every time 2716’s operating cousins — Nickel Plate 765 in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Pere Marquette 1225 in Owosso, Mich. — go out on the road. 

Wearing its Southern Railway fantrip garb, 2716 tackles Oreton Hill out of Harvey, Va., on May 17, 1982. Ron Flanary photo
Now just imagine how wonderful it would be to see all three AMC 2-8-4s in steam — maybe even together. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

There are plenty of mainline steam projects that need your support, and that includes C&O 2716. It’s easy to make donations to Kentucky Steam Heritage Corp. Simply visit KSHC’s website at and follow the link marked “Join the Movement.” 

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