“When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort-like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils . . . it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.” -Henry David Thoreau
For more than one hundred years, steam locomotives were the main motive power of any railroad, often judged on their power and capability to handle trains.
The steam locomotive has captured the imagination of millions across the world, usually described at the most human-like machine man has ever built. For many, they were a labor of love, a display of craftsmanship and an example of a crew’s responsibility (for on-the-road maintenance and train handling).
But that era of drama and excitement on the rails was over for Class I railroads by 1960 when the Norfolk and Western Railway (N&W) became the last major railroad to go all diesel.
Along with the N&W and many other railroads, the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (nicknamed the Nickel Plate Road) had a class of iconic steam locomotives – the 2-8-4 S-Class “Berkshires”; Two wheels for the pilot truck, eight driving wheels and four trailing wheels that supported the large fireboxes.
Almost all railroads in the northeast, save the N&W and a few others, had several models this type of engine on its rosters. However, the Nickel Plate Road’s are probably the most well-known of them all. They were that railroads preferred engine type, able to haul heavy tonnage trains at high speeds – what the Nickel Plate Road prided itself on.
Today, there are only six surviving examples of Nickel Plate Berkshires left in existence. The two most famous are #765 and #759. The latter had a short excursion career hauling trains like the Golden Spike Limited and other public specials. It was later returned to retirement after water was frozen in the boiler – causing an unknown amount of damage.
But today, one remains and has been roaming the rails all across the eastern half of the United States – #765. She has a rather interesting history.
Right before the Nickel Plate donated the engine to the City of Fort Wayne, they renumbered #767, the engine that opened the railroad elevation in the City of Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was uncovered that it wasn’t her original number when the founding members of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society began restoration on the engine in the early 1970s.
Since then, she has been running with her proper number – entertaining and educating thousands of people. It was decided that age 72, she would re-visit her #767 number in honor of the railroad elevation in Fort Wayne. Plus an added bonus, and hotly debated in the railfanning community, she regained her Mars light.
The 765/767 is a wonderful example of a bygone era with an excellent crew dedicated to keeping her alive and well, ready to create memories for thousands more.
As for her number, I’m told she’ll keep it for the remainder of the year and Mars light indefinitely.
With her annual trips around the country, soon more people will be able to experience a time when someone might stand at a station as a steam-belching giant trundles down the rail, cinders raining down, waiting to climb on board and whisk them away to a far-off corner or holler across the country.
But don’t take my word for it, check them out for yourself – or one of the many, many other groups running (or restoring) steam locomotives. Thoreau was right when he believed that steam locomotives were a race finally worthy to inhabit the Earth, the most human-like machines we’ve ever created.
My passion for steam locomotives and a desire to learn how to operate them has lead to begin volunteering, when time allows, on the Chespeake and Ohio #2716. Find more information about it here.
Caption for image in title: A young boy joined his father in witnessing a timeless scene of a steam locomotive scurrying down the railroad with a passenger train in tow.