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LAMRC Shamokin Branch


Once upon a time, September 14, 1956, four Decapod, or 2-10-0 type locomotives and their crews got into trouble while attempting to lift approximately 9000 gross tons of iron ore and train, 500 feet of elevation in a route distance of 27.1 miles. That is to say, they stalled. This is the story of how they extricated themselves.

Only an incident, perhaps, but nevertheless rare on several counts. In 1956 coal burning steam motive power moved just 7.99 per cent of Class 1 railroad gross ton miles. The engines involved were of a design that dated back to 1916, and the newest member of the team left Baldwin 33 years before. Also, despite the implications of the lading and the fact that it was billed Pennsylvania Railroad, the action took place on an unremarkable single-track branch, officially the Shamokin Branch of the Susquehanna District of the Northern Region between Sunbury and Mount Carmel, Pa.

No radio, no roller bearings, no welded rail-just 90 cars of Mesabi rust, the heaviest kind of tonnage imaginable, clanking along to the impulse of superheated steam over a rural right of way which included a 13.9 degree curve and a 1.31 per cent ruling grade. Here then, was isolated orthodoxy of steam and steel and big time railroading superimposed on a mixed train daily format.

Or so It seemed.

Actually, the 27 miles of the Shamokin Branch-which climbs from the Susquehanna River valley at Sunbury to a Lehigh Valley interchange in Mount Carmel-are but a tiny link for hopper cars making the Great Circle Route. The cars move under load from the ore docks of Erie, Pa., to Bethlehem Steel's home town of Bethlehem, Pa.; deadhead beyond to the piers of Philadelphia or Baltimore; haul import ore west across the Alleghenies to Johnstown, Pa., or Pittsburgh; then run empty back to Lake Erie to begin the cycle all over again.

As for the 2-10-0's, Pennsy had them in steam for a most practical reason. Until total dieselization of nonelectrified mileage could be obtained, the railroad was judiciously operating steam to move seasonal tonnage such as iron ore in essentially low-mileage polls where coal was abundant and water good. And the Shamokin Branch met these qualifications with a vengeance.

Thus on a overcast September 14th noon the engine crews of I1's #4646 and #4243 girded for battle outside the roundhouse at Northumberland, Pa.-which dispatched steam power out of Sunbury to Enola, Altoona, and Renovo, Pa. before double heading out to pick up 9000 tons of ore train for delivery to the junction in Mount Carmel.

What gutsy machines these were and what a chapter in the history of the American steam locomotive. For example, those who think of standardization of steam in terms of 275 New York Central Hudsons (albeit three distinct classes) or even 425 alike Pennsy K4 Pacifics need to ponder the fact that the original experimental "I1" came out of Altoona in December 1916, was quickly followed by 122 sisters, and just as soon as the USRA had passed, multiplied into an order for 100 from Baldwin in 1922 and 375 more in 1923! Imagine it, 598 locomotives of a single class of a single wheel arrangement on a single railroad. Why, that number is a tenth of all the steam power operated by a big road like L&N in its lifetime or more than double all those Central J's or more that the total of all the 2-8-2's, 2-8-4's, 4-6-4's, and 4-8-2's that Santa Fe ever operated!

These I1's bore slight changes, a deep K4 3-chime whistle instead of the original single note banshees, a gigantic 21,000 gallon tank on the #4616, relocated headlights and turbogenerators, but essentially, they were the same ponderous hippos of old. An engine with cylinders so large (30 X 32 inches) that a Railway Age correspondent of 1917 wondered if three smaller pistons rather than two huge ones might not have been better.

Never mind, the pair of 2-10-0's soon had their train and were off to Mount Carmel on a round trip that would take 6 hours under optimum conditions and otherwise work the crew perilously close to the legal 16 hours.

Up the wide, shallow valley of Shamokin Creek they came, hammering hard to overcome the inertial of apparently empty hoppers, burdened with an invisible (from lineside) glob of ore over each truck. Those enormous I1 main rods (11 feet 1 inches) long; more than 8 inches thick at the crankpin rose and fell in time with the laboring exhaust as 9000 tons were pulled over gradients of as much as 0.33 per cent at 20 to 25 mph.

At Crowl, a hamlet of 40 souls with a passing track and a general store to show for it, the doubleheader took water, then held the main to meet a southbound local. In addition, two more I1's, #3445 and #4268 coupled in behind the caboose for the 1.31 per cent grade ahead. Now the ore was entrusted to eight (8) engineers and firemen; 722 tons of Decapods, excluding tanks; and a combined starting tractive effort of 384,104 pounds-assuming 250 pounds of boiler pressure, no leaks, dry rail, and other ideal conditions that might or might not be present in the miles ahead.

The ground shook as they whistled off and walked into the narrowing valley, steadily ascending a stiffening grade, 0.25, 0.4, 0.75, 0.76. On they came, through the village of Tharptown, past the Glen Burn Colliery, smack through downtown Shamokin, over a dozen grade crossings, rattling the windows of churches and houses, filling the air with the exhaust of eight cylinders turning 40 driving wheels. On the 1.31 per cent, they were, then, and down to an excruciatingly slow walk-slogging, pulling, heaving, then suddenly, slower, much too slow, then nothing.

They'd stalled-on the steepest part of the grade! Pops lifted, enginemen cursed, pumps raced to feed the air reservoirs.

The reason they'd stalled-perhaps because the air leaked was academic. The ticklish bit was restarting those 9000 limp tons on the upgrade. Ticklish because there had to be coordination between road engines and helpers separated by 90 hopper cars. Coordination so that all engines drifted back as one to take up slack and then all move ahead on the same stroke. With only their whistles to guide them, the engineers to guide them, the engineers tried the trick once and failed when an I1 lost her footing and slipped wildly. On the next attempt emergency air suddenly clutched every break shoe on the train. The worst had happened. The road engines had eased back for slack, reversed, and moved forward while the helpers were still backing up! There is a limit to what equipment what can take, so the knuckle of the rear coupler on the tenth car from the front had cracked open, parting the train and air lines! Now, what to do. The only thing there was to do was to remove the knuckle from the front coupler of the front engine; lug it the length of two engines and ten cars and drop it into place. "If we need another knuckle," muttered the fireman who carried it, to a brakeman who watched, "you're bringing it from the rear of the train!"

Quickly now, the lead I1's recoupled the train, pumped off the brakes, then leaned into the 9000 tons once again. And once again the air-gauge needles in the cabs sank out of sight. (It developed that the helpers had run low on water, cut off, and drifted back to the plug in Shamokin. The flagman, setting hand brakes on the rear 10 or 15 cars, had heard the head end attempting to start alone and pulled the air.)

Just as the helpers came scurrying back to couple on again, the darkening overcast filled it's implication and rain began falling, a few drops, then drizzle, and soon a driving rain. Hope faded. If the I1's couldn't do it on dry rail, why even attempt it on wet? Once, twice they tried, only to lose their feet. It began to look as if the only alternatives were to double the hill or call out the Shamokin shifter.

Once more, however, the 2-10-0's on the markers' end eased back in acknowledgment of three brief whistle blasts from the head end. The helpers drifted a car length and more, reversed, and talked it up. Indeed, the rearmost I1 slammed forward so hard that water sloshed out of the tender of the engine ahead.

The lead helper couldn't anchor those five pairs of drivers, and fire rimmed the spinning tires. But the I1 behind, digging in on the sand laid down by her sister, kept fighting, kept straining, kept jostling, shoving, trudging ahead until her slipping mate took hold and unbelievably, 9000 tons moved off up that 1.3 per cent, rain-drenched grade in an anthem of thunder to the gods of the high iron.


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This page was last updated: October 14th, 2020

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