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K-4 to return — in pieces

Railroaders museum to display parts of historic locomotive in Altoona

May 18, 2008
By William Kibler,
Predictions on when the Railroaders Memorial Museum would finish restoring its K-4 locomotive were the scourge of former director Scott Cessna’s career — because he had to revise them continually as the unfinished project chugged past target date after target date.

Still, new director Larry Sa-lone isn’t backing away from predictions — although he’s giving himself room for error.

Under his first timetable, the K-4 could be done within 18 months — or it could take up to twice that long.

Work won’t resume right away on the project, which stalled last summer, but the museum will put pieces of the locomotive and largely finished coal tender on display in Memorial Hall temporarily starting next month.

It will be the first opportunity in a dozen years to view the locomotive in Altoona after its restoration sojourn at Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton.

Having the K-4 parts available to view and touch will enable people to get an appreciation of the effort and craftsmanship involved, said Rudy Husband, museum board member and spokesman.

‘‘It’s great to get a lot of things finally moving forward,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, the museum will send the boiler out for critical reconstruction at a certified shop, which Salone expects will take nine to 14 months.

The museum will also seek bids for construction of a quarter-roundhouse in the yard, a project that is expected to take three months.

When those projects are complete, the museum will put together a crew to assemble the locomotive in the quarter-roundhouse.

Does Salone feel daunted contemplating getting the antique locomotive back in running condition?

‘‘I’m an engineer,’’ said Salone, whose business interests include manufacturing of food service equipment. ‘‘This is an engineering job.’’

The K-4 project began in 1996 with the expectation it would take three years. But time ticked by as myriad problems — from the complexity of the project to funding problems — slowed forward progress.

Last year, the state halted disbursement of funding until the locomotive returned to Altoona. The museum has since inventoried and removed all the locomotive’s small pieces from Steamtown, though the boiler remains until the museum can ship it directly to a repair contractor, said Superintendent Kip Hagen.

Not long after the state’s decision, the museum board replaced Cessna with Salone’s management company.

Smithsonian Institution transportation history curator Bill Withuhn believes the project should be seen through to completion.

‘‘They need to get it moving again,’’ said Withuhn of work on engine 1361 of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s K-4 line. ‘‘It’s the most historically important locomotive of the 20th century that needs [to be] restored.’’

The locomotive is important, he said, because it is a surviving example of the first locomotive line in the western hemisphere fully designed on the basis of scientific principles. And it was designed and built here, said the California native.

It is ‘‘the most publicly known fruit’’ of the famed Altoona test plant, which has its founding on a locomotive-testing treadmill created by PRR under legendary CEO and Pittsburgh native Alexander Cassatt, brother of impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. Withuhn said the treadmill was on exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, then PRR installed it in Altoona on the current site of Station Medical Center.

Starting in 1907, the plant tested all kinds of things, from lightbulbs to pencils to chemical treatments for wood to locomotives.

By 1914, the test results enabled the railroad to transcend the old method of designing locomotives to include big gains in power and efficiency needed by the railroad.

The biggest, most visible change with the K-4 was an enlarged firebox, Withuhn said.

The K-4 line served the PRR for five decades as its top passenger engine, working the most prestigious runs between Philadelphia and Chicago and setting records for reliability and economy, he said.

‘‘It was an amazingly beautiful performer,’’ said Withuhn, who operated locomotive 1361 on excursions in the late 1980s.

Heading back from Tyrone, he got it past 50 mph.

‘‘It took off ... like a comet. It took your breath away,’’ he said.

Salone would like to start construction on the quarter-roundhouse in the fall. He said the museum has $2 million available for the project from a federal transportation enhancement grant.

The museum has about $600,000 available for the K-4 from a 2006 state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project grant. Salone estimates the restoration will cost up to $900,000 and that he’ll need to get the additional money through fundraising.

‘‘It’s been a rough road, there’s no denying,’’ Withuhn said of the restoration project. ‘‘[But] ‘‘I would just love to pull that throttle one more time.’’

Article Photos

The K-4’s original headlight waits to be installed July 16, 2004, at Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton. (Mirror file photo by J.D. Cavrich)

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