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


  1. I thought your little video was quite nice. I really like the effort you made to see this engine. While I sit here in this stifling office and field phone calls and e-mails from the directionally and mathematically challenged idividuals. They drive and they vote. And we wonder how our nation ended up the way it is.

    1. Kathy,

      Thanks for the compliment on my video. I had to edit it quite a bit to get all my belly aching about missing the train, out of the video. I thought the stills from the video didn't turn out too bad but that was a cropping night mare. I should have went to my wilder and lonelier spot and took my chances with the bulls. Thanks for stopping on by and commenting.

  2. Good story.......the trials and tribulations of catching a steam locomotive. I sure wouldn't call it a bust. Things worked quite nicely. No doubt it will be by your way again or at least within a short half days hop if you wanted to see it live.

    Around our parts up here in the Northland steam was making it's last hurrah in the late 50's and early 60's , so I was still a bit too young to actually remember seeing them, but we have up here a regular steam excursion locomotive, the Prairie Dog Central. (google it) ..been running every summer in Manitoba since the late 60's. They've changed excursion stations a couple of times, but when it first started running, the siding tracks they used were a mere 3/4 mile from my place. So every weekend we'd ride our bikes to the RR tracks and watch the steam train. Even got to go up into the engine a couple times while the guy was firing the stuff. Yes..I like trains. Always said I was born 10 years too late. Should have been born around 1947 and could have had my fill of regular steam up here in Manitoba.
    Nice to see you blogging again.

    1. No it was not a bust, but I really am pissed at myself that I just didn't leave the damned camera at home and just experience this thing. Essentially I saw about a 5 second view of the engine and tender when it was well past me. I did not get any sense of the smoke you see in the video or the sight of the drive linkage. I did exactly what I said I was not going to with a camera, and like an idiot I stood in the middle of a crowd--another thing I set out to avoid. There are 25 billion photos of this damn thing on the net and probably several thousand good videos of it, so why did I feel the need to be a half assed photo journalist when I specifically set out not to do that. I could kick myself. I thought, well I will feel better when I see the video on the computer, and actually I feel worse because I see now what I missed.

      I am not sure when steam died out around here but I would tend to say the mid fifties. We moved when I was 5 years old and while I was very close to a railroad, but it is a specialty railroad owned by US Steel. Ore one direction, slag the other, out our way. Coke, hot metal, slabs in between plants on the river. It is a strange little railroad. It has 65 miles of main track, yet in the early 50s had the highest tonnage hauled of any railroad in the world. Well ore, metal, coke and slag is heavy. Anyhow we moved in 1954 and the Union had gone to diesel switchers in the late 40s. So you got to see a lot of the same thing, five switcher engines ganged pounding full tilt dragging ore cars at about 10 MPH. The switchers were very versatile for their mill operations. So they just ganged them to do the "long" trip, about 10 miles from the river out to North Bessemer where the Bessemer and Lake Erie starts and goes to Lake Erie. Both rail roads use the same cars, just different engines. The B&LE used to be owned by US Steel but is now owned by CN. So after 1954 the only time I could have seen a steam engine was on our trips to Pittsburgh, which when you are a 5 year old kid, you are not looking for steam engines because they are going to fade out.

      You are the only guy in the world (aside from teen agers) that wished they were older! I was born in 1949, its not that great! Thanks for dropping in and commenting.

  3. Great video and a great blog! Watching the video, I couldn't help but get excited to see it again. I think it is the woman who was yelling and screaming, possibly the one holding her young child in her arms. This is a day that child will remember always!
    When I saw it, that was one of the side highlights, seeing all the kids who came out to see it, brought by their parents and grandparents. I also saw a few adults that brought their parents to view this little(?) bit of the past zoom past them. Glad you got to see it! I'm sure its something you'll remember also!
    One last thing, don't you just love the sound it makes, the whistle and the sound of the linkages, diesels just don't have that same exciting sound.

    1. I was surprised by the number of women there. Women must like trains! Hmmm!

      I think it may have been due to loading but I was surprised actually how quiet it was. I think it was coming down a slight down hill grade. It didn't seem to be working very hard. I was expecting it to be very noisy and it wasn't. The diesel were far louder. The whistle was just totally cool!

      Thanks for the compliment on my video and blog.

  4. Well I think it was pretty cool that you went to all the trouble to go see this thing and even though you didn't get to experience seeing it the way you wanted to you were able to share it with us...your readers! People were pretty darned excited weren't they? I actually was lucky enough to ride a train with a steam locomotive when I was about 6 years old and my dad took us to Presidio, Durango, Mexico to visit his birthland. I still remember how exciting it was and the sound of the engine chugging up what seemed like a huge mountain to me and how dark it was when it went into tunnels. I wouldn't have remembered that if not for your trek to see this engine :)

    1. Alicia,

      Yes they were excited, I had to edit out some of my grumbling out of the video. Thank God for video software, I wouldn't have been able to publish it. Actually I behaved my self with language, but there was excessive whining on my part about being so dumb and missing the engine.

      Your trip on the train with the steam engine would really be cool. Yes those tunnels are amazing. Some of the old Pennsylvania tunnels in NW PA are used for Rails to Trails. The usually have a bend in them and you can't see either end in the middle. It is so black inside you can feel it. Really cool.

      Alicia, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  5. Glad you caught up to the engine... And that was quite a chase!!

    1. muthu

      Thanks and thanks for visiting my blog.