Reading & Northern 2102 is the comeback kid

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Ross Rowland is at the throttle as 2102, posing as D&H 302, climbs the 1.5% grade out of Scranton on May 27, 1973. John B. Corns photo
It would have been good to be in northeastern Pennsylvania last weekend, there to witness one of the truly great steam revivals, the return of Reading & Northern 4-8-4 No. 2102 in excursion service. By all accounts — including a flood of thrilling action photos and video all over social media — it was a highly successful performance by the former Reading Co. workhorse, hauling 19 cars and nearly 900 riders in what’s been described as nearly a perfect performance. And no diesel helper.

If there is an award for greatest second, third, and fourth acts for steam locomotives, it seems to me the honor must go to 2102. How many times has this homemade Northern been retired and brought back, then retired and brought back again? A lot.

Over the past week I’ve been editing a story about the 2102 for the September issue of Trains magazine, a detailed account by veteran author Scott A. Hartley. In his story, Hartley expertly chronicles how R&N owner Andy Muller brought the husky 4-8-4 out of mothballs and returned it to the operating roster, probably in better condition than when it came out of the Reading Co.’s shops in 1945. The railroad spent six years and approximately $1.7 million getting the Northern back in shape. The September issue with Scott’s story is on sale August 9.

One of these days soon I’ll catch up with the 2102, because the engine is on old acquaintance. In fact, this 4-8-4 popped up frequently in my life back in the 1970s, usually when I was with my longtime friend and collaborator John B. Corns, former chief company photographer for CSX Transportation and now a board member at the Age of Steam Roundhouse in Ohio. 

Conrail Road Foreman of Engines C.H. Fisher does double duty as 2102’s fireman and pilot on an October 1976 excursion. John B. Corns photo
It was 2102 that drew us to the hamlet of Marlinton, W.Va., back in August 1971, when 2102, then owned by Steam Tours of Akron, Ohio, was running occasional trips over Chesapeake & Ohio’s old Greenbrier Branch, a beautiful stretch of railroad now mostly and sadly abandoned. John and I were still college age, green as can be, and the thrill of watching 2102 rumble into town and pause at Marlinton’s gingerbread C&O depot was a formative moment for both of us. 

We came under the T-1’s spell again a couple of years later when the 2102 — dressed up as Delaware & Hudson 4-8-4 No. 302 — hauled a memorable round trip on Erie-Lackawanna from Hoboken, N.J., to Binghamton, N.Y., up on the old Erie, back on the old Lackawanna. The trip was sponsored by Ross Rowland’s High Iron Co. Fixed in my mind is the way Rowland, bedecked in his familiar red-and-white polka dot cap, had the engine hooked up for a noisy, high-speed run across the fabled Lackawanna Cutoff. 

With its fat Wootten firebox, arched cab window, and forehead-high headlight, the 2102 wasn’t everyone’s idea of a beautiful steam locomotive. But don’t tell that to John B., who made a mini-career out of shooting the engine in those days. 

The 2102 blasts up Horseshoe Curve on Oct. 10, 1976. John B. Corns photo
“The 2102’s decidedly Reading lineage was readily apparent, bringing to mind the terrible T-hog nickname and other aspersions assigned by unenlightened railfans,” John recalls. “‘Ugly, wide firebox!’ they shouted. ‘Non-standard, but no problem,’ I replied. ‘Running board side skirts!’ they bemoaned. ‘Not my style, but otherwise, O.K.’ said I. ‘Arched-top cab windows!’ they complained. ‘Graceful and beautiful,’ I smiled.”

John describes himself as “not mechanically inclined,” but he managed to make himself valuable to Steam Tours’ 2102 team by supplying the organization with high-quality photos for use in advertising and brochures, including for several trips in 1976 and ’77, some on Conrail around the Pennsylvania Railroad’s legendary Horseshoe Curve as well as trips on Pittsburgh & Lake Erie around that railroad’s namesake city.

John’s photo coverage of the 2102 was splashed across several pages in the April 1977 issue of Trains. Fortunately for all of us, Editor David P. Morgan was along for one of those trips around the Curve and made this lovely observation: “Maybe cinders have flown farther, thicker, faster — but I can’t remember where or when. What I do remember are those coupled 70-inch Boxpok drivers of the 2102 forging around the curves, the great girth of boiler thrusting forward, the stack beating out the accelerated revolutions per minute below. What an afternoon.” 

I was thrilled for John B. when Morgan put a Kodachrome version of the accompanying shot on that April 1977 cover, the first of several of John’s pictures to make the Trains cover over the years.

A young admirer photographs 2102 on a Pittsburgh-Brownsville Junction trip over P&LE on May 15, 1976. John B. Corns photo
One of my all-time favorite Corns shots is shown here as a little boy, obviously rapt by the sheer presence of 2102, raises his little camera to make a picture as it roars past on a Pittsburgh-Brownsville Junction trip in May 1976. John remembers the shot clearly.

“On the return leg of a Pittsburgh-Belle Vernon fantrip, I saw the opportunity to combine a slow shutter speed with a swift moving locomotive to create a blurred background of a youngster with the most basic of cameras making photos of 2102,” explains John. “A steam fan in the making?  Perhaps. I hope his photos turned out O.K., and that he continues buying tickets and riding behind steam.”   

That little boy today would be in the neighborhood of 50 years old. Thanks to Andy Muller and the Reading & Northern, he’s got a chance to get acquainted again with one of steam’s all-time survivors. 

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