Friday, February 5, 2016

From Reading Rambles to Chessie Steam Specials

from a photographer's notebook...

Former Reading steam locomotive No. 2101 leads a Chessie System Steam Special approaching Harpers Ferry, WV on this May afternoon in 1977. Kodachrome ©Steve Ember
...or stuff a good stout blizzard can have you reliving...
You would not have necessarily guessed it, looking at her handsome heavy duty 4-8-4 “Northern” lines, typical of the highest evolution of the steam locomotive in the 1940s (before diesels began to write a new chapter in motive power on U.S. railroads), but Reading T-1 Class No.2101 (as well as all of her sisters in the 2100 series) began life in 1923 as a (smaller) 2-8-0 Consolidation type.
The Reading Railroad needed faster and more powerful steam locomotives to pull both passenger and freight trains, and with new steam locomotives not a possibility, the railroad created and built the T-1 Class locomotives with a mixture of new parts from the Baldwin locomotive works and the aforementioned 2-8-0’s.
But there was nothing “thrown together” looking about the resulting machine. Remember, this was an era where major railroads, like the Reading and (of course!) the Pennsylvania, actually designed and built their locomotives.
The result was a handsome, reliable, and fast “new” class of steam locomotive which served its creator/operators well into the mid-1950s, pulling both heavy freights and long, fast passenger trains on the Reading.
The Reading Rambles...
As the entry of diesels brought about the phasing out of steam power, the Reading, much to its credit – and much to the appreciation of countless railfans and steam enthusiasts – continued to operate 2100-series locomotives on the famous “Reading Rambles” fan trips and Autumn Leaf Specials.
I never got to ride one of these specials, but I do vividly remember seeing a shiny black Reading T-1 on the point of one such Reading Ramble, on the lower level of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Camden Station in Baltimore. It was on a sunny afternoon in 1964, the last year of these special excursion trains, and the rookie teen photog was in attendance with his first SLR, a Yashica J3.
One day, I know, I will turn up a color slide or ten of this magnificent machine surrounded by excited railfans awaiting the thrill of riding behind it. The locomotive probably was one of 2101’s T-1 Class stable-mates, but a T-1…is a T-1…is a T-1. And they were all as iconic as it gets.

From scrap yard to spotlight...
Like so many of her kind, T-1 No. 2101 languished in a scrap yard until 1975. Plans were being firmed up for the American Freedom Train, which would run as part of Bicentennial celebrations across the country. Southern Pacific steam locomotive No.4449, another handsome machine, was the primary locomotive for this venture, but she was considered too heavy for some of the railroads on which the Freedom Train was to operate.
Railroad entrepreneur Ross E. Rowland Jr selected Reading 2101 to pull the train in the east, and in the span of thirty days, she was restored to operating condition in the very shop in which she was created in 1945.

Pulling the Freedom Train, she bore the number plate AFT-1.

But that was not the end of the story for this handsome old gal. Less than two years later, Rowland arranged a series of steam excursions on various routes of the Chessie System.
We’ve already established 2101 was an iconic looking locomotive, but, before talking more about the “Chessie Steam Special,” I’d like to tell you about an iconic little railroad kitty.

Skimbleshanks, meet Chessie
Now, if you’re like me and love both cats and trains, you probably are familiar with T S Eliot’s Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, from “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” More likely, though, you know him from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats.”
Gruenwald Etching (Wikipedia)
But I have the feeling Skimbleshanks had a distant American great-great-great cousin named Chessie. Well, actually, little Chessie had Viennese roots, too. Don’t you just love a good sturdy mixed breed "mutt" of the domestic shorthair variety?

In the 1930s, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad got itself a really neat mascot. It was adapted from an etching by Viennese artist Guido Gruenwald of a cute little tabby kitten all cuddled up in a blanket. Chessie appeared in all the railroad’s advertising for its passenger trains, with the slogan “Sleep like a Kitten.” Chessie had an admirable run as corporate symbol-kitty, until 1972 when the C&O ceded passenger train service over to Amtrak.

But Chessie went on as a symbol for many more years...

The aforementioned C&O, along with the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) and the Western Maryland Railway, all became the Chessie System. And while the Chessie System no longer operated passenger trains under its banner (it did operate certain Amtrak routes), it kept Chessie’s allure quite alive with a distinctive logo, the “Ches-C,” which incorporated Chessie-kitty’s form into a big bold “C.”

So, back to that “Chessie Steam Special,” 2101’s Last Hurrah…

For this set of excursions in 1977 and ‘78 on various routes of the Chessie System, 2101 was adorned with Chessie System trim, and her big yellow-and-orange tender bore that bold “Ches-C” logo. The locomotive’s number plate, of course, reverted to 2101 (from the AFT-1) and above her pilot, she bore a yellow “Chessie Steam Special” plaque, with the “Ches-C” as part of the design.

I enjoyed “chasing Chessie” along a few of the routes she traversed, of course taking lots of slides of this special train and its handsome 4-8-4 on the point. The images are now making their first appearances.

2101 applies some hefty 4-8-4 power as she pulls the Chessie Steam Special tinto this sweeping curve 
on the former Western Maryland Railway near Hanover, Pennsylvania on a May afternoon in 1977. 
Kodachrome by Steve Ember ©2016
One of the most enjoyable parts of the recent MonsterBlizzard for me (with no travel either beckoning or possible!) was delving into some long-unseen strips of negatives and boxes of slides.

Much of this was done rather “at random” for the sheer pleasure of re-discovering, well, who knows what photographic adventures.

Among those happy finds was a box of Kodachrome-64 slides, part of my Chessie-chase in May of 1977. One of the reasons I so loved shooting Kodachrome was – and is – the fact that its colors are quite unlikely to fade over the years when properly stored. I was not only as tickled as the kid in the candy store in finding these slides and reliving a pleasurable train-adventure, but also in seeing these Kodachromes had proved true to their longevity heritage.

This set included shots of the train on sweeping curves at both Hanover, Pennsylvania and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. But I think my favorites were those I took from the highest ground in Harpers Ferry, from the lawn of the (still in operation) Hilltop House Hotel and Restaurant, of the westbound Chessie Steam Special emerging from the Braddock Heights, Maryland tunnel onto the bridge carrying the former B&O tracks across the Potomac leading into Harpers Ferry.

This also happens to be the most “iconic” as it is a real B&O legacy view – the Chessie Steam Specials were actually honoring the 150th anniversary of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

I’ve many a fond memory of shooting – in the pre-Amtrak days – the glorious sight of the B&O’s flagship Baltimore to Chicago train “The Capitol Limited,” resplendent in Royal Blue, gray, and gold livery behind a gleaming set of three EMD E-8 diesels in the golden late afternoon sunshine, including from that same vantage point…to say nothing of riding that exquisite train to Chicago, enjoying supper in its lovely dining car as it rumbled across the bridge into Harpers Ferry, later enjoying the increasingly rugged scenery from a comfortable seat in the train's "Astrodome" car before contentedly retiring to my roomette.

Sometime – hopefully even before the next “Stormzilla” – I shall find those slides. What a nice time machine journey that will be!

Meantime, may I share this photo of the Chessie Steam Special with 2101 puffing away on the point. It was taken on May 28, 1977 through a 300 mm lens on a Pentax Spotmatic SLR

Yes, it too was shot on Kodachrome-64 film, but, considering the subject, and the B&O legacy it represents, I decided its first appearance should be in this toned black and white version. (Fine Art prints available; see below)

If you’re not familiar with Harpers Ferry, a bit of description may be in order. This historic town sits at the confluence of two major rivers in the eastern U.S. – the Potomac, over which the train is crossing on the bridge, and the broad Shenandoah in the distance, beyond the trees. The other bridge, also a part of the original B&O trackage at Harpers Ferry carried trains past Harpers Ferry on a branch line to Winchester, Virginia.

Both lines are now part of CSX Transportation, which the Chessie System went on to be.

And yes, one can still see the occasional reminder of Chessie the Railroad Kitten along the CSX.

Oh, yes, I mentioned the Chessie Steam Special was 2101’s Last Hurrah.

The sad postscript...

She was parked in a roundhouse in Kentucky when a major fire swept the building. The fire damage was so extensive that it would take a major rebuilding to get her re-certified to operate. She now appears – in a cosmetic restoration – at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Sadly, things being as they are, it is doubtful that she’ll steam again.

If you’d like a memento of 2101 in prouder times, the photograph is available in archival gallery prints in 10 x 7 inch and larger sizes on Epson Signature Series Ultra Premium Luster as well as on various Fine Art white cotton matte stocks. Very large prints can be made on Canon Metallic or matte stock in archival pigment prints.

Other images in the series are available in color. All can also be ordered as custom printed photo note cards.

Please be in touch ( if you’d like more information on this or other series of photographs.

©2016 Steve Ember

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