Canadian Pacific #1278 4-6-2 – The unheralded hero of modern-day steam

By John B. Corns

A little-known landmark locomotive is located at the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum in Sugarcreek, Ohio. Most railfans know how former Canadian Pacific 4-6-2 #1278 gained notoriety for its infamous crown sheet incident in 1995, but far fewer fans are aware that this trim Pacific-type set the stage for an entire industry of privately-funded restorations of privately-owned steam locomotives that were returned to operation to pull main line excursions. Without the early-day fantrip successes of #1278, there would have been no Ross Rowland and his fantrip-operating High Iron Company, no rebirth of NKP 2-8-4 #759 (the first main line steam locomotive resurrected from the dead), no Reading 4-8-4 #2101, no Texas & Pacific 2-10-4 #610, no Southern Pacific 4-8-4 Daylight #4449 and no Chesapeake & Ohio 4-8-4 #614. There would have been no American Freedom Train, no Chessie Steam Special, no Chessie Safety Express, nor many other notable steam trips on main lines and short lines all across the Eastern U.S. The superb performance of #1278 astonished early doubters and ensured the continuance of future fantrips by the High Iron Company. All subsequent steam locomotive resurrections during the past half-century owe their restorations and revivals to this one G-5d, former Canadian Pacific 4-6-2 #1278.

Pacific #1278 was one of thirty, G-5d class engines built for CP during 1948 at Canadian Locomotive Company in Kingston, Ontario (serial #2435). Their low-weight, 117-ton construction was perfect for light-rail and branch line duty on CP passenger and freight trains. These 4-6-2s had a perfect power-to-weight ratio and were known as “diggers” that dug in and ran as fast as engineers dared. The more you beat them, the hotter they got—800 degrees F steam heat going into the cylinders, so hot that sometimes their shiny piston rods turned blue! The balanced design of the G-5d had the advantage of a perfect ratio of crank position to small-ish, 70-inch driving wheels. That is important because of the increased number of power strokes per mile, compared with locos having larger drivers but less power. This G-5d steamer loved screaming uphill with 17-20 coaches and 1% grades.

The #1278 was equipped with all modern devices of the day, including an Elesco 5-poppet front-end throttle, an Elesco feedwater heater and a mechanical stoker. Inside the firebox, new style button-head staybolts were used to affix the steel crown sheet. A big advantage was #1278’s small firebox with no large, expansive sheets, thus reducing thermal stresses because of limited strain due to less expansion and contraction. The G-5d locos had very strong fireboxes, but with generous grate areas and big ash pans. Like all of CP’s G-5d locos, #1278 had a slotted dry pipe and, therefore, needed no steam dome. They were easy to fire, easy to maintain, and strong as an ox! All G-5d Pacifics have all-weather aluminum cabs, but climb onto the engineer’s seat on a hot July day and you will soon learn that the poorly ventilated, hot, enclosed space is better suited to Canada’s cold winter weather.

Along with CP 4-6-2 sisters #1246 and #1293, #1278 was purchased (in 1965) by F. Nelson Blount for use at his expanding Steamtown USA museum and Green Mountain tourist train operation in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Retired in 1960, #1278 still had flue time, so was put to work running at Steamtown…and elsewhere. The first High Iron Company fantrip occurred on October 13, 1966, between Jersey City, NJ, and Jim Thorpe, Pa., and used Steamtown’s #1278 to pull the 15-car train at 70 mph (track speed) for most of the way. Nelson Blount, the loco’s owner, was invited to be the guest engineer on the homeward trip and commented afterward, “Thank you so much for arranging this trip. I’ve been dreaming all my life what it must be like to run at track speed and now I know. I just had the best experience of my life!” Less than a year later Mr. Blount died in a small plane accident.

All of the G-5d locos used a vertical, coil-type Elesco feedwater heater resembling a lady’s hatbox that projected upward out of the top of the smokebox in front of the smokestack. Specifications for #1278 are the same as for all of Canadian Pacific’s G-5d 4-6-2’s, except that #1278 now uses a bundle-type Elesco feedwater heater inside a horizontal tube mounted transversely across the top of the smokebox. While at Steamtown, the #1278’s original hatbox-style feedwater heater was changed to this more traditional style Elesco model.

During the winter of 1968, two steam locomotives were quickly set up as emergency boilers for the municipal steam plant in the city of Reading, Pa. They had been scheduled to pull a double-headed fantrip that January, but were diverted to stationary boiler duty. Steamtown’s #1278 and Strasburg RR’s 2-10-0 #90 were then called in to pinch-hit for the two sidetracked steamers, and the double-headed trips ran flawlessly and on-schedule. Later, #1278 was renumbered to #127, continued running at Steamtown, and during 1970-71 was leased to the Cadillac & Lake City in Michigan. To commemorate the Delaware & Hudson’s 150th anniversary, during 1973 the #1278 was given huge “elephant ear” smoke deflectors, a sunken headlight mounted inside the smokebox. and was renumbered as D&H #653 for a series of successful fantrips. After Steamtown had moved to its new home at Scranton, Pa., the lighter #1278 was traded during 1987 to the Gettysburg RR in exchange for that road’s larger, ex-Canadian National 2-8-2 #3254, a more powerful steamer that was now needed to handle additional cars on Steamtown’s steeper main line grades through the Pocono Mountains. This trade would change fantrips forever.

On the evening of June 16, 1995, the juxtaposition of lax maintenance, poor employee training and operational errors at the Gettysburg RR combined to cause the boiler water level to drop too low and the steel in #1278’s crown sheet to become soft, sag and partially fail when the staybolts pulled through the weakened steel. That small rupture in the boiler and immediate discharge of steam eliminated the internal pressure, thus allowing boiler water to expand 1,600 times its own volume! In an instant, all water in the boiler flashed into steam. The blast of escaping steam, called a BLEVE (an acronym for “boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion” and pronounced “blevy”) burned three crewmen. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated, determining that the modern, Canadian design of the firebox with button-head staybolts reduced the size of the crown sheet failure and may have prevented additional injuries and perhaps deaths. Because of this incident, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) developed an all-new set of rules for the maintenance and operation of steam locomotives.

The ex-Gettysburg RR equipment was sold at auction during 1998, and Jerry Jacobson purchased both #1278 and a small Frisco 2-8-0 #76 (which he sold later to another museum). Today, CP 4-6-2 #1278 is displayed in the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum as a monument to its seminal role in the steam resurrection of the 1960s, and for its pivotal role in the rewriting of the FRA’s so-called “New Steam Rules” for better locomotive maintenance, employee training and safety. All of us are safer today—and into the future—because of #1278’s bad experience.