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Helper engine: Maryland RR group excursion will benefit K4 work

Railroaders Memorial Museum Executive Director Joe DeFrancesco leans on 80 inch drivers of the K4 1361 locomotive. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad took seven years to restore a Pennsylvania-built steam locomotive to running condition, finishing the job in 2021.

The Cumberland-based railroad got help from other organizations and individuals in the heritage rail community and wants to repay the debt — while using its newly rebuilt engine to encourage historic preservation elsewhere.

Accordingly, WMSR is making its Baldwin Mallet 1309 available for a fundraising excursion next month that could generate as much as $70,000 toward renovation of the Railroaders Memorial Museum’s K4 1361 steam locomotive, which has been undergoing a rebuild in fits and starts for 30 years.

“It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?” said Western Maryland Executive Director Wesley Heinz of the Altoona saga.

It has been a long time, but the K4 effort has new momentum, since a reorganization last year involving a new Altoona museum director, a new museum board chairman, who once ran Norfolk Southern Railway, and a nationally respected consulting firm handling the reconstruction, according to Heinz.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Altoona-built K4 1361 is seen in York on Aug. 26, 1988. Courtesy photo

“What happened in the past happened,” Heinz said. “(Now it’s time) to move forward.”

He’s well aware of the K4’s “checkered past,” said Altoona museum Executive Director Joe DeFrancesco. “(But) I can’t stress enough that this renewed effort is a new future.”

DeFrancesco is optimistic about the Maryland fundraiser but conservative in his estimation. “It could (generate) anywhere from $10,000 and up,” he said.

Tickets are $361 per person, and there are 200 seats available.

“Do the math,” he said.

Railroaders Memorial Museum Executive Director Joe DeFrancesco leans on the new firebox as he looks into the boiler of the K4 1361 locomotive. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

The evening excursion Oct. 14 will run from Cumberland to Frostburg, Md., with food, drinks, live entertainment and an open carriage among the cars.

K4’s whistle to be used

The Baldwin locomotive will be using the K4’s whistle.

“The voice of 1361,” DeFrancesco said.

Tickets are available on the WMSR website.

Click on “Book Now!” within the window labeled “Support the Spirit of Altoona on Oct. 14th!”

“It will be a gala on rails,” DeFrancesco said.

Heinz made the suggestion for the fundraiser. “I said ‘I’m all ears,'” DeFrancesco recalled saying.

“It felt like a natural fit,” Heinz said.

All the proceeds will go to the K4 restoration except the wholesale cost of the food that the WMSR chefs will prepare for the passengers, Heinz said.

Members of his organization know people at the Altoona museum, where he’s visited a dozen times, Heinz said.

“We just really want to show the way forward in preservation,” he said. “Help your friends when they have something that is special.”

Baldwin hauled coal

The Baldwin, constructed in Eddystone near Philadelphia in 1949, “is this incredible tool we can utilize,” Heinz said.

In revenue service for the Chesapeake and Ohio, it hauled coal on branch lines in southern West Virginia for seven years.

It’s been in excursion service since November.

It was designed to be slow.

It was the locomotive version of “the Honda Accord,” Heinz said, “the everyday working man’s locomotive. … You fired them up, and they ran.”

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s K4s were different.

“Built for high-speed passenger service and to run on time,” he said. “Sixty-five to 85 mph, all in a day’s work — and some were clocked going faster.”

The K4 was the first “scientifically designed locomotive,” said Davidson Ward, president of FMW Solutions, the project consultant, citing the late Smithsonian railroad expert Bill Withuhn.

Prototypes tested

PRR experts tested prototypes for it on a treadmill in Altoona, checking out power and fuel and water consumption, Ward said.

The Altoona-built 1361 would have routinely gone from Philadelphia to St. Louis and Chicago, Heinz said.

He referred to the K4 and the Baldwin anthropomorphically — and as feminine.

Locomotives have always been “romanticized,” he said.

It will cost about $2.4 million to complete the “top-to-bottom” restoration, according to DeFrancesco.

The museum has raised about $200,000 toward that amount since the reorganization announcement in June 2021 — $100,000 of which was contributed by the members of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society, DeFrancesco said.

The money raised since the reorganization announcement will enable the museum to buy and form the materials for the firebox, he said.

The museum is now trying to raise an additional $200,000 for firebox installation, he said.

The firebox is the largest single component in the restoration budget, according to DeFrancesco.

The organization hopes that showing progress by “chunk(s)” will encourage donations.

“There’s still a long way to go” to complete the restoration, DeFrancesco said.

“(We’re) devouring the elephant one bite at a time,” he said.

Most prior repairs OK

Prior to the 2021 reorganization announcement, restoration efforts had cost around $1.7 million, according to DeFrancesco.

Many of the repairs were done at Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, under a partnership between Steamtown, the University of Scranton and the Railroaders Memorial Museum.

Most of those repairs were acceptable — “not wasted,” DeFrancesco said.

That restoration effort had begun after the K4’s main bearing and drive axle failed during an excursion in 1988.

That breakdown ended a year-and-a-half of excursions following a partial rebuild that began after the locomotive was brought to the Conrail shop in Altoona in 1985 from the Horseshoe Curve, where it had been on static display for years.

The locomotive went out of revenue service for the PRR in 1956, according to online sources.

FMW is managing the restoration, directing the work of a handful of local volunteers — skilled machinists with backgrounds as Norfolk Southern employees of the Juniata Locomotive Shop, according to DeFrancesco.

FMW schedules sessions as funding permits, DeFrancesco said.

Since last year, prior repairs on the steam dome have been corrected, leading to a successful inspection, and work has been done on the running gear and frame, according to DeFrancesco.

Workers have also removed the firebox and other boiler components, so that a rebuilt firebox can be installed, DeFrancesco said.

Safety updates planned

Some of the firebox work will be based on safety updates put in place by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2000, after a steam locomotive incident in 1996 near Gettysburg, according to Ward.

Some will be based on safety updates put in place for railroads in the 1920s, when the safety requirement for pressure vessels was increased from 3.75 times normal operating levels to 4 times, according to Ward.

FMW consulted the original blueprints and performed electronic analysis, modeling and laser and ultrasound tests on the firebox — the part of the boiler where a fire is built underneath water held in an envelope of steel above and to the sides, thus creating steam.

The testing disclosed some rivets of unsuitable composition, given the movement and stretching of the boiler when heated, according to FMW’s Wolf Fengler, in a video provided by DeFrancesco.

It also disclosed a design problem caused by brackets connected to the backhead that “hang down quite a bit into the boiler,” creating a stress issue, Fengler said.

It disclosed problems with steel sheets that were butt-welded, but weren’t in perfect alignment, according to Fengler.

And it disclosed problems with side sheets that need to be thicker, and problems with staybolt sizes, patterns and spacing, Fengler said.

Staybolts hold the steel sides of the firebox water envelope a specific distance apart, creating the space for the water to be heated to steam.

After the firebox is done, workers will put the boiler back onto the frame, run the steam pipes to the cylinders and various appliances and make needed repairs to those appliances — including the injectors that feed water to the boiler, Ward said.

Workers will also attend to the driving gear and running gear: crank pins and side rods, bearings, spring rigging and brakes.

Century of service

The goal is to prepare the K4 1361 for a “century of operation,” Ward said.

It will be different than it was in revenue service, he said.

The PRR “used and abused” the K4 then, operating the locomotive perhaps 28 days a month, he said.

As an excursion locomotive, the K4 will have “a nicer, retirement lifestyle,” he said. “We will baby this like the museum piece it is,” he said.

Museum piece maybe, but also an engine of economic development and a vehicle for “living history” education, according to DeFrancesco.

“More purposeful than just a relic,” he said.

“Running full tilt or just putzing along,” Heinz said, “you’ll hear it breathing, and it becomes this living thing.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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