Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Thursday, August 23, 2012

63 Years Old and Still Haven't Seen A Steam Engine!

NKP # 765 At Manor Pennsylvania

When I was a young child, I can remember being out and people making a fuss over diesel locomotives...”Oh look! A diesel!”  What I can’t remember is ever seeing a steam locomotive.  Until I was 5, my family lived in Pittsburgh and trains were very common back in the early 50s, there had to be a zillion steam engines.  Yet for the life of me I have no recollection of ever seeing one.

Earlier in the month I received an email from a friend stating that the Nickel Plate Road steam engine #765 was out at the Conway Yards in nearby Beaver County.  Norfolk & Southern was conducting tour excursions for its employes.  Wow!  This would be an ideal opportunity to go out and see a steam engine.  Unfortunately there was no published schedule.  While I would have really liked to go see it in action, the thought of standing in the hot sun clueless as to when or if it would show up was not very appealing, not to mention that any place worth seeing would be crowded with other spectators and there would be a high probability of altercations with the railroad bulls.  In my current state of retired ennui, it seemed like too damned much aggravation.  So I chose to not pursue the opportunity.  My buddy successfully chased the train and got some really great photos on his blog:

Books, Adventure And Life, Chasing The Nickel Plate 765, August 13, 2012

Close up of the action.  Stills from the movie. 

Reading his account, I was very unhappy with my laziness.  I had found a tracker for the engine on the Internet, so I formulated a plan.  The engine and the excursion train was going to go to Harrisburg on Monday the 13.  So I would watch the tracker and when I saw the engine moving I would jump in the car and drive down to Trafford and watch it go by.  Well by the time I remembered to check the tracker, the train was already in the east end of Pittsburgh and moving fast.  

Note the position of the drive linkage compared to the
following photos. 

I was not ready and it dimly occurred to me, you are never going to be able to catch this thing.  It moves 30 to 50 mph and has no traffic, no red lights, no one making cell phone calls, and it doesn’t have to wait for people making left hand turns.  So I helplessly watched the train on the tracker rush off to Harrisburg.  Another opportunity lost, and I became galvanized in my resolve.  I am going to see that damned engine when it comes back to the Conway Yards on August 20. 
Note the red diamond build plate above the drive cylinder.

So I formulated a plan.  I would wait for the train to clear the famous Horseshoe Curve near Altoona and then I would race off to a good spot along the tracks and wait.  I checked the Amtrack schedule which uses the same tracks and I figured I would have plenty of time to travel my location and be ready for it. 

So I scouted Google Earth for a good location.  I then took a ride out in the car and verified my location and got a couple backups, in case the first location didn’t work out.  I then worked on trying to get the tracker to operate on my second generation Kindle so that I could track the train while in the car.  The Kindle has a rudimentary Internet browser that works off of 3G cellure service.  Its crude, but free.  Well unfortunately I could access the tracker site but it would not display the map.  So essentially as soon as I left the house I had no way of tracking the train.  So we would have to error on the side of caution and leave plenty of time and just hope that the train would not stop some place.  Well all my scouting was for not.  We got worried about the railroad bulls throwing us off our site, and decided to view the train from a parking lot in the small town of Manor.  

Nickel Plate Road Tender, note fireman waving at top.

So on the morning of the 20th I got up at 7 AM,  checked the tracker, and the train was already underway, about half way between Harrisburg and Lewistown.  So my wife and I got ready to go and we kept an eye on the tracker.  The train got to Altoona and then stopped. We were ready to go but I was afraid that the train would stop on the Horseshoe Curve, so I wanted to wait for it to get west of the curve, then we would leave.  After an hour the train started moving again and did not stop on the Curve. So we gathered up our drinks, camera, and gps and headed for the car.  I went back in the house for one last check of the tracker, the train stopped in Cresson.  So we waited again.  After 30 minutes it started to move again and we drove off to Manor where we met up with my wife’s brother. 

There was a small crowd waiting so we joined in.  Some of the folks in the crowd had iPhones with the tracker app, so at least we knew we didn’t miss it.  It took about 2 hours for it to show up but was well worth the wait.   

My original plan was to snap one quick picture of it, and then truly experience the engine going by--not fool with the camera.   Well it didn’t happen that way.  I suddenly  got the brilliant idea to take a movie of it.  So the engine comes thundering down on us, and I start filming it with the movie mode on my camera.  Suddenly I become aware of the fact that I am missing it.  All I can see is a tiny image in the view finder.  By the time I make this remarkable discovery the engine is past me.  With my poor positioning in the crowd and inexperience with the camera, I got a rather crappy video.  So my one chance to see a steam engine and I blow it.  I didn’t really see it except for a few fleeting seconds when it was well past me.  So here I remain, 63 years old and still really haven’t seen a steam engine in operation.  Damn!
NKP 765 Build Plate

A little history.  Engine 765 is a  2-8-4 Berkshire class steam locomotive built in 1944 by the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima Ohio for the Nickel Plate Road.  It weighs 404 tons and is 15 feet tall and had a cylinder horsepower of 2,754 hp.  The drive wheels are 69 inches in diameter.    The 2-8-4 is the wheel arrangement on the engine.  Two leading (pony) wheels, eight drive wheels, and 4 trailing wheels.  The designation Berkshire came from the prototype engine powerfully negotiating the Berkshire Mountains on its initial test.  It was the first of the Super Power locomotives from Lima that used advanced boiler and firebox technology to provide power at speed.  

The Nickel Plate Road was the nickname for the New York, Chicago and St Louis Railroad.  The origin of the nickname was from a newspaper article describing the competition from various towns in Ohio seeking the glittering prize of the railroad’s right of way through their town.  The railroad formed in 1877 and was merged into the Norfolk Western Railroad in 1964.  The Norfolk Western merged with the Southern Railroad in 1982 to become the present day Norfolk Southern. 

NKP 765 at the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, PA
August 13, 2012
Engine 765 served the Nickel Plate Road but was retired in the mid 50s.  The city of Fort Wayne Indiana, procured the engine and put it on display in 1963.  The engine sat unused and in the weather until 1972.  At that time the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society took charge of the engine and refurbished it for operation.  It served from 1979 to 1993 in excursion service.  It returned to the shop for another overhaul and returned to service in 2005. 

In the summer of 2012, Norfolk Southern leased the engine to provide a series of employee excursions.  The operations in Pennsylvania included excursion from the Conway Yard near Pittsburgh and the Enola Yards in Harrisburg.  The tracks used by the train in transit were the old Pennsylvania Railroad main line tracks from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg which included rounding the famous Horseshoe Curve near Altoona.  I caught the return trip from Harrisburg on August 20, 2012.  

NKP 765 Tracker Map
Route highlighting is my effort.
I just realized there is no distance scale on this map.  According to the
Amtrak schedule, there are 249 miles of track from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. 

So I share my poor video with you dear reader and offer a piece of advice.  If Engine 765 ever comes to your area, go see it.  It is definitely something to see, well worth the wait even in the hot sun, but leave your damned camera at home.     


For a ton of information on NKP 765, good videos, photos, and the tracker:

Local Newspaper Article:

Excellent Blog Article:

Books, Adventure And Life, Chasing The Nickel Plate 765, August 13, 2012

Image Credits:

All images including video are mine except, 

Nickel Plate Road Logo:  Wikipedia, Nickel Plate Road

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Engines of Change, A Review

Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen CarsEngines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars by Paul Ingrassia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ingrassia does for cars what Halberstam did for the Fifties.  Well maybe not quite that good,  but really a great book that explains the effects of the various cars on the American way of life.  Ingrassia selects 15 cars that have influenced American society, from the Ford Model T to the Toyota Prius.  

One thing to note about the book, it is not predominately about the car itself.  It is more of a look at the history of the epoch, the people and the trends that created the car, the people that bought the car,  and how the spirit of the car affected American society.  So gear heads beware, you are not going to get a chart that shows you the engine displacement and horse power selections available for each year of Corvettes.  You will learn the role that Duntov played in the car and why the car appealed to Americans after the Depression and the Second World War.  The book should appeal to a wide audience, and not just car enthusiasts. 

Also one can argue with his choice of what vehicles to include.  The author explains its best:

The hardest part about writing this book wasn’t deciding what cars to include. It was deciding what cars to leave out. My selections will disappoint some people, especially fans of iconic automobiles not included.

But this book isn’t intended to be about great cars, fast cars, or famous cars, although it contains some of each. Instead it’s about the automobiles that have influenced how we live and think as Americans. The cars in this book either changed American society or uniquely captured the spirit of their time. By those criteria most cars, even those regarded as automotive icons, fall short.

Ingrassia, Paul (2012-05-01). Engines of Change (Kindle Locations 5485-5489). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

So if you are a fan of say a 57 Chevy, you are going to be disappointed because a 57 Chevy, while certainly an iconic car, in no way affected American society the way the Corvair did.

The book is informative and fun to read.  Ingrassia did a great job researching this book and has a good sense of humor.  Excellent book, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

View all my reviews, Engines of Change, Paul Ingrassia

Edit 8-21-12:  Here is my 1970 Duster which is my favorite car of memory.  It was not mentioned in the book.

1970 Plymouth Duster at El Mirage Dry Lake, California