They were 80 of America’s finest steam locomotives, designed and built in Ohio to race—at passenger train speeds—freight trains filled with perishable meat and vegetables from Western suppliers to East Coast markets. They were fast, economical. beautiful and beloved by legions of railroad buffs. They were the Nickel Plate Berks, or, more properly, the 2-8-4 Berkshire-type steam locomotives of the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railway. Fifteen NKP Berks were built in 1934 by American Locomotive Company (Alco), and the remaining 65 were constructed by Lima Locomotive Works during World War II until 1949 when NKP 2-8-4 No.779 rolled out of the erecting shop as Lima’s last steam locomotive. Six NKP Berks still survive, and one—No.765—still operates.
These so-called “Van Sweringen Berkshires” were operated by 4 of the railroads controlled by the brothers Van Sweringen—Pere Marquette, Chesapeake & Ohio, Nickel Plate Road and Erie railroads—and shared a common heritage. They were designed by the Advisory Mechanical Committee (AMC), a consortium of locomotive experts from these four railroads who collaborated with Lima to produce some of the finest reciprocating steam power ever to turn a wheel. For the first time a locomotive’s boiler could develop and sustain more steam than its cylinders could use. No longer did a loco have to stop and “build up steam.” The AMC had advanced the then-new concept of Super Power where steam locomotives produced their maximum horsepower at high speeds, not maximum tractive effort at slow speeds as in the earlier era of drag-freights plodding along at 7 miles per hour.
Nickel Plate’s 2-8-4s were positioned at several major terminals across its 523-mile Chicago to Buffalo main line, with intermediate division points located in Fort Wayne (Indiana), and at Bellevue and Conneaut (Ohio). A freight train would usually be operated from one division point to the next where its steamer was replaced at each successive terminal with a different, “fresh” locomotive. Each “old” locomotive was turned around, serviced (given coal, water, lubricants and minor repairs), and then used on another freight train to get back to its home terminal. Through experience and daily repetitions, the Nickel Plate had orchestrated these freight runs down to tightly kept schedules that relied on optimal performance by men and machines. On-time connections with other railroads were imperative to prevent delays to the perishable fresh meat, fruits and vegetables inside the ice-refrigerated freight cars (“reefers”). The Nickel Plate was famous for its High Speed Service, the company’s slogan that was proudly emblazoned in large lettering across the sides of its caboose fleet.
With World War II raging all around, American railroads needed a continual stream of new steam locomotives to move men and matériel across the network of steel rails, which was dubbed “The Lifeline of the Nation.” The Nickel Plate turned again to on-line Lima for its third batch of “War Baby” Berkshires. These thirty S-2 class 2-8-4s were considered as the best steam locomotives ever owned by the NKP, with locomotive #763 being the “Queen of the NKP.” The #763 was completed and shipped to the Nickel Plate Road on September 1, 1944.
The widespread use of more efficient, internal combustion diesel locomotives surged after World War II, and old-fashioned steam locomotives were displaced gradually from American railroads. There were a few hold-outs where steam still ruled the rails, most notably the Norfolk & Western, Grand Trunk Western, and Duluth Missabe & Iron Range, all of which ran their last steamers in 1960. The Nickle Plate had to dieselize during July 1958 (two years earlier than planned) because it could no longer get spare parts to repair its steamers. NKP Berk #763 was outshopped at Conneaut in August 1957, and made its break-in run with westbound freight train #35 on September 1, as seen in this remarkable “panned” photograph (above) by noted NKP historian, John A. Rehor.
The #763 was operated successfully until its last run in June 1958, but was held in steam with several other NKP 2-8-4s until July 21 when their fires were finally dropped. Main line steam was dead on the Nickel Plate Road. The #763 sat in Conneaut but was never donated as planned to the city of Erie, Pa., and during 1966 NKP successor N&W took #763 to its headquarters city of Roanoke, Virginia, for display at a museum there. Jerry Jacobson purchased #763 in 2007 and moved it on its own wheels to his Ohio Central Railroad System. He then built his beautiful Age of Steam Roundhouse in Sugarcreek, Ohio, to protect and preserve his collection of steam locomotives. NKP #763—the Queen of the NKP and the Queen of the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum— will soon be joined by a steam locomotive nicknamed “The King,” former Bessemer & Lake Erie 2-10-4 #643.