Locomotive steams through Downtown Pittsburgh

'A people magnet' steams through the city

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When a 404-ton Berkshire-type steam locomotive barreled through Pittsburgh on Monday afternoon, it brought back to Richard Stefanos one of the sights, sounds and smells of his 1950s boyhood.

"All that noise and smoke is still exciting," he said just after the train passed on its way west.

Mr. Stefanos, who lives in Kennedy, brought his twin 3-year-old grandsons, James and William, to Allegheny Commons to watch for the excursion train with him.

"It's steaming, it's smoking, it's thunderous, it's powerful," former B&O railroader Tom Brown of Mount Washington said. "This is not something you see every day."

The two dozen gathered on the North Side to watch the passage of the gleaming black coal-burning steam engine -- Nickel Plate Road No. 765 -- were among the uncountable people who gathered near the tracks between Harrisburg and Ambridge.

"It's a people magnet," crew member Kelly Lynch said of No. 765. "There are no push-buttons on a locomotive. It represents an era when people worked with their hands to get things done."

Mr. Lynch has learned something about getting his hands dirty. He regularly volunteers as a fireman -- the crew member who feeds coal into the firebox -- on the steam engine.

Mr. Lynch also serves as communications director for the locomotive's restorer and owner, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society. The nonprofit organization has leased the engine for the summer to Norfolk Southern Corp., which is marking its 30th anniversary as a merged railroad. The Nickel Plate Road was one of its predecessors.

Pulling passenger cars full of railroad employees and their families, the locomotive has been crisscrossing states where the Norfolk Southern operates. When it passed through Pittsburgh on Monday, the train was returning from a weekend in Harrisburg. The 765 is stopping overnight at the Conway rail yard in Beaver County.

The sight of a 404-ton steam engine snaking its way through Downtown at rush hour caught many Pittsburghers by surprise.

Just as the train passed behind the Greyhound Bus station, No. 765's engineer pulled the cord on the steam-driven whistle, releasing a throaty, smoky yell that echoed throughout Downtown. It caused several dozen people walking near 11th Street and Liberty Avenue to stop, look up, gape and point, in unison. People driving home slowed at intersections as the train neared them.

"It was awesome," said Matthew Yester, 34, of Etna. He is an accountant who works Downtown and was walking to his car when No. 765 passed above him unexpectedly. "It just came out of nowhere, and everyone just started snapping BlackBerry photos" with their cell phones.

The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society relies on a corps of about 100 volunteers to keep the locomotive well maintained and operating, Mr. Lynch said. They range in age from teenagers to people pushing 70. Many bring experience from having worked for railroads.

He estimated that society volunteers put in about 1,000 hours per month caring for No. 765.

Sometimes several generations of the same family are involved with the society. Kelly Lynch's father, retired newspaper cartoonist Dan Lynch, is a longtime director of the society. "My first childhood memory is of being in the cab of that locomotive," Kelly Lynch said.

In addition to being the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Norfolk Southern line, 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the incorporation of the Fort Wayne society.

No. 765 was built in 1944 in the Lima, Ohio, Locomotive Works. It was the tail end of the steam era in the United States, as railroads had begun replacing high-maintenance steam engines with diesel-powered locomotives. Standing 15 feet tall, the locomotive still has a top speed of more than 60 miles per hour.

No. 765 was mothballed in 1958, and in 1963 it became a display in a Fort Wayne, Ind., park. Nine years later the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society was created to restore the weather-beaten locomotive.

Starting in 1979, No. 765 began pulling excursion trains, eventually traveling 52,000 miles throughout the Midwest, as far east as New Jersey and as far south as Georgia. The 765 also appeared in the feature films "Four Friends" and "Matewan."

Between 1993 and 2005 the locomotive was given another overhaul.

The society estimates that the train already has carried more than 100,000 passengers.

neigh_city - Transportation

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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