The Magnificent Leviathan

Posted by Jim Wilke
on Saturday, April 20, 2019

The first sight of Leviathan was unforgettable.   There it was, on its first debut in Owasso, Michigan, a big, brand new nineteenth century locomotive, standing on the track like a magnificent horse pausing in mid stride.  It's as if a clock was turned back 140 years, and Leviathan - a full scale replica of Central Pacific passenger locomotive originally built in 1868 -  was once again new and bright.  

Leviathan gleamed like a new planet.  It was a universe of polished steel and spotless iron, bound together with burnished brass and bright color, all carefully machined smooth and without a blemish.   Once, as smoke from a passing steam locomotive covered Leviathan with soot, the Leviathan crew, without a word or command, automatically picked up rags and cleaners and set to work polishing Leviathan up again.  

Anyone working on or around original nineteenth century locomotives knows that they are very well made machines.  They are stronger and better built than their ornate appearance might suggest.  And once brought back to life, they display a gumption and desire to run that takes people by surprise.  Yet they are also machines which have seen a lot of hard work over their original service lives, with all the small knocks and dents that come from a full life, and at 140 years, are irreplaceable and rare.

This is where the value of replica locomotives such as Leviathan comes in.  If the original Leviathan had long ago worked its life and gone to scrap, the new Leviathan enjoyed stiff, crisply machined machinery that had yet to be worked out or worn in.  Its working life is all ahead to it.  In a very real sense, Leviathan brings back the nineteenth century machine in its original strength, and in the case of the original Schenectady-built Leviathan, one built a particularly muscular design.

Thirty ton locomotive replicas do not appear from thin air.  They require dedication, organization, funding, capacity and above all, a knack for asking the right questions.   In Leviathan’s case, the right combination was Dave Kloke who ran a dirt moving equipment repair shop in Elgin Illinois.  He had the material and organizational ability to get things done, a desire to have a steam locomotive and the willingness to do it right, without cutting corners. 

Kloke has, in turn, dedicated much of the work to honor Chad O’Connor, the head of O’Connor Engineering in Costa Mesa, California, whose plans, research, blueprints and patterns, used to built the Jupiter and No. 119 replicas in 1978, made building Leviathan possible.  O’Connor’s work was exceptionally good, and Kloke’s Leviathan is as much a tribute to him as it is a locomotive, a mark of respect and appreciation from one to another in the engineering and manufacturing field.

The original Leviathan was turned out by the Schenectady Locomotive Works of Schenectady, New York, in the late summer of 1868, shipped in crates around the Cape Horn, and from Sacramento sent to work on the farthest end of the Central Pacific’s track in Utah Territory, only miles from the Union Pacific’s own end of line.  It was only a month into service when Leviathan made history by hauling Governor Stanford’s special train to Camp Victory, where it was picked up by Leviathan’s sister engine Jupiter to handle the rest of the way to Promontory and fame. 

The magnificent name "Leviathan" was one of the Central Pacific’s power names, alongside Growler, Hurricane and Terrible, and its immediate sister engines Storm and Whirlwind.  They fostered the feeling of a majestic and powerful force, inherent to an allegory of railroads and industrial power.  Their names represent an era when locomotives were the most visible products of the industrial revolution, and objects of pride and interest to their communities. 

Kloke added a few touches of his own to Leviathan, including a varnished wood cab, carefully striped in gold leaf.  His eye is pretty spot on.  Recent research into the original livery of sister engine Jupiter has found that, along with a darker blue tender and a lot more red, Jupiter did indeed originally have a varnished cab, and so did Leviathan.  In fact, varnished cabs were a standard feature of Schenectady locomotives in the 1860s.

Schenectady built locomotives had a solid reputation, and a Central Pacific engineer once said that he would trade any two, no, any three engines a rival builder made for one Schenectady.  Leviathan has given as good a chance as any to test that out.  With every run Leviathan limbered up, and with the weight of a train really showed what its made of.  It was strong, powerful and limber in its actions, and more than capable of a few turns of speed.  One of the original Leviathan’s sisters engines, Black Fox No. 148, hit sixty for a stretch while hauling a special train in 1876.   The new Leviathan has come close, doing 40 miles per hour on a stretch of track to the shock of passers by.

Leviathan and other locomotive reconstructions offer us the opportunity to see what it was like on their own terms, when they were powerful and new.  Leviathan is among the best of them and testimony to the ability and vision of O'Connor and Kloke in taking on such a massive project, and then seeing it to success.  

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