Locomotive set for more visits

Last summer, an Indiana-based excursion locomotive steamed through the area and back again, drawing crowds of people who tracked the train online and waited for hours to see it.

They’ll get an opportunity to see even more of the Nickel Plate Railroad’s No. 765 in May, and if they’re willing to pay, may even get the chance to ride behind the chuffing, clanking machine over the Horseshoe Curve.

The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society plans to run excursions from Lewistown through Altoona, over the Curve to Gallitzin and back again on May 25, 26 and 27, with a two-plus hour layover at the Railroaders Memorial Museum on each return trip.

The weekend before, the society plans to run two or three trips each on May 18 and 19 from Altoona over the Curve to Gallitzin and back for employees of Norfolk Southern Railway and their families.

In between, if a society track inspector gives the OK, the society will house the 765 – under steam – in the Altoona museum’s new quarter-roundhouse.

Thus, instead of two fleeting opportunities to catch a steam locomotive negotiating the Curve, there may be as many as nine chances to witness the engine negotiating the mountain – plus a chance to examine the locomotive at leisure indoors.

As of mid-afternoon Friday, only 170 tickets remained for the public to ride the train – and they were all for May 27.

There’s a wait list online and a notification that the society might add cars to make the trip available to others.

Railfans snatched up seats in express fashion – 1,300 in just 63 hours, after they went on sale online.

“We didn’t have a chance to run newspaper or radio ads like we usually do,” said Wayne York, excursion manager. “This is by far the hottest ticket our organization ever had.”

The society has been running the excursions with No. 676 for a total of 20 years.

The buyers this time include people from Argentina, Australia, Ireland, Canada and all over the U.S., York said.

The seats aren’t cheap: ranging from $129 for a child in coach to $379 for a dome car.

But it will be the first time since 1977 that a member of the public will have the chance to ride the Curve behind steam, York said.

“It will probably be the most significant railroad excursion this year anywhere in the U.S.,” he said.

The last public steam excursion on the Curve was pulled by a former Reading Railroad engine now stored in Hamburg, Pa., and long retired from service, York said.

It’s hard for people here to “have perspective” on the Curve’s draw, according to York.

“It is the No. 1 railroad landmark in the U.S.,” he said.

It’s attractive because of the difficulty of the engineering problem it surmounts, its “heavy duty” 1.7 percent grade, which is a hazard to descend; because the line is a key artery; and because Altoona at the foot of the mountain was a key railroad city, according to York, who is from Lima, Ohio.

The Curve last hosted a regular steam powered train in 1957 – three years before regular commercial steam disappeared in the U.S. altogether.

The last bastions were in West Virginia, Michigan and Illinois, York said.

It will be a “cool thing” if the society can bring the locomotive into the quarter-roundhouse, said Railroaders Memorial Museum Executive Director Larry Salone.

Museum admission and lunch is included with a first-class excursion ticket, according to York.

“We’ll help [the society] in any way possible,” Salone said.

The 765 is one of six steam locomotives of its size still operating excursions in the U.S., and the only one east of the Mississippi, according to York.

“It’s the ultimate for rail enthusiasts,” York said. “To recreate traditional railroading the way it was.”

Ticket sales are through fortwaynerailroad.org. More information is available at 260-267-5765.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.