In May of 1958, the steam locomotive had less than 60 days of life left on the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad.
In Conneaut, Ohio, the slow march toward obsolescence wore on inside the railroad’s shop near South Jackon Street. Sometime that month, it would complete the last overhaul of one of its storied Berkshire-type steam locomotives – an engine numbered 759.
Despite the railroad’s re-investment in the locomotive, its “superpowered” ability to hustle and bustle commerce across the Midwest, and the belief that steam could still play a limited role were it not for an economic recession, the engine would never turn another wheel for the what was more commonly known as the Nickel Plate Road.
A few weeks later in June, the outdated technology that had steadily guided the company for over 70 years would cease. The flame would extinguish entirely that winter when a stored steam engine numbered 765 was fired up for a stranded passenger train in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and as a few yard engines loped around Bellevue, Ohio to fill-in amidst their diesel-powered replacements.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, a variety of retired engines had been plucked from the scrap line, destined to become city monuments or encounter other fates – Nickel Plate Mikado-types went to Hammond and Indianapolis, Indiana, and Bloomington, Illinois; one Hudson went to St. Louis and two others to a private owner; but the Berkshires, still listed as “stored serviceable” on the company roster, languished around the system. In 1962, F. Nelson Blount purchased the 759 for his collection at Steamtown USA, a swelling museum collection of itinerant steam locomotives located in New Hampshire, and later relocated to Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Not long after, a collection of steam history enthusiasts which comprised the High Iron Company had sprung up operating steam excursions in the East. “HiCo” was determined to celebrate the centennial of the Transcontinental Railroad a short time away in 1969. They knew that pulling a massive, barnstorming, cross-country steam excursion required a superpower. They needed the 759.
The engine was leased from Steamtown, only to find itself relocated back to Conneaut. There, the Nickel Plate’s successor Norfolk & Western permitted the engine back to where it had originally left in like-new condition only ten years earlier. In just a few months, the engine was tuned up and repaired by a menagerie of teenagers, investors, former Nickel Platers, and dozens of others. By August of 1968, the 759 was alive again.
For several years, the 759 romped around the general railroad system, racking up thousands of miles between New Jersey, Kansas City, Roanoke, Horsehoe Curve, Cumberland, Jim Thorpe, and beyond, operating specials, charters, and excursions with paying passengers and diehards in attendance by the thousands.
With its signature gravelly whistle spreading its melody over different time zones, it pulled most of the eastern leg of the 1969 Golden Spike Centennial Limited and the last Norfolk & Western passenger train before Amtrak took over in 1971.
The 759 tapped into a cultural zeitgeist in more ways than one. Amid the Golden Spike trips and elsewhere, the engine traveled through a handful of towns in Indiana and Ohio, where it proved to an unorganized group of young railroad fans that a mainline, superpowered steam locomotive like no. 759 could actually be restored. It could actually be done.
In Fort Wayne that group would soon convalesce around a monument in a city park that bore a special resemblance to the 759.
Shortly after the 759 had been selected for Steamtown, five other Berkshires found their own paths to preservation. As the 759 arrived in New Hampshire, the Nickel Plate Road readied sister engine no. 765 for display in Fort Wayne’s Lawton Park in 1964. The 765 had been the last Berkshire under steam for the railroad, whereas the 759 had been the last one overhauled. The two engines had unwittingly become 400-ton bookends in the library of steam locomotive history.
Enchanted by the smell of coal smoke and the success of The High Iron Company, the merry band of advocates formed the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society in 1972 with the intention to preserve, restore and operate the 765. Before the 765 would ever turn a wheel under its own power again in 1979, the 759’s brief career was over, but the engine’s inspiration and members of its very crew would carry the Fort Wayne organization toward realizing their dream. To help, the Society acquired a 16mm print of Steam Right On, a lovingly crafted, 18-minute documentary showcasing the 759’s own revival.
Filmed by Michael Autorino, narrated by Alan Frank, and produced by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the film’s soundtrack interchanges the imagined “voice” of the 759 with commentary from its crew members, all set against a plucky, folksy guitar track, professional, vivid cinematography, with excited, montage-style editing. It feels a little dated, but in a way that is charmingly so. “Come to think of it, who’s more suited to whistle-stop campaigning than I am?” asks the narrator.
While we see plenty of the 759’s crew at work, the filmmaker makes a distinctive creative choice to never use traditionally shot interviews or “talking heads.” We hear only the “voice” of the 759 and the evocative remarks from her laborers. The variety of footage is also striking – with glimpses of Ridgeley, West Virginia coming out to welcome the 759 on the Western Maryland Railroad and coverage of the 759’s long climb up the Middle Division of Penn Central over Horseshoe Curve.
A custom cut of the film was created by the Society for use in fundraising for the 765. At the tail end of the reel, footage of the 765’s crew is spliced in, showing them hard at work wrangling the 765 back to life in a section entitled “PROJECT 765.”
The footage plays out silently, meant to be narrated in-person by its presenters, wherever the 765’s crew was giving a much-needed pitch. While the High Iron Company had been funded by investors like Ross Rowland, the Fort Wayne group had settled their efforts in a modest field, without a shop facility like Calumet, and with only a grassroots donation campaign underway.
By 1979, the 765 was successfully restored, but the 759’s time had passed. When the Society shared Steam Right On, no one knew that the passing of the torch had already occurred. Suffering several mechanical issues, it was returned to Bellows Falls where it rested until it was relocated into the reorganized Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1984. For twenty years, the 765 would nonetheless follow its example, operating for Norfolk & Western’s successor Norfolk Southern, crossing the Mississippi River, gliding through the New River Gorge, climbing Horsehoe Curve, and marching into downtown Chicago in passenger excursion and public exhibition service, delighting millions of people from around the world.
In 2015, the 765 was welcomed to Steamtown for a series of special events – and for the first time since the late 1950s, two Nickel Plate Berkshires sat side-by-side in a roundhouse together. In steam preservation, where so many pieces of equipment were once scattered to the wind, the idea that two large mainline locomotives of the same class, same railroad, same type, same-nearly-everything, would co-exist together is a rarity. The bookends had finally met.
The 759’s role as a teaching tool has extended far beyond Conneaut or Steamtown.
It taught a new generation that it could be done.
But why’d they do it?
We should let 759 answer:
“Why do they do it? What causes their admiration? Where did their love begin? Where does it come from, this fascination that men have for me? My kind? The enthusiasm and admiration transcend time. Whether in a big city or a small town, the people turn out. Some, perhaps, with nostalgic memories of their youth. Still others with a youthful curiosity to see me first hand, for the first time…Well, let’s just say that this country and we grew hand in hand. We made an impression on each other. And each was better for it.”