Kevin V. Bunker



            Some sixty years after the introduction of the steam railroad into the history of the United States of America, New York state witnessed a spectacle of naked commercial promotion and unparalleled public wonder, the creation of New York Central & Hudson River Railroad's locomotive No.999.


            Before digging too deeply into the incarnation of the machine, it is essential that the reader understand the almost worshipful fascination involving railroads and speed which Americans had developed within twenty years of the completion of the nation's first Transcontinental railroad in 1869. From that date onwards the railways swelled not only in mileage and capacity, they grew into the first truly mechanized form of travel provided to goods and the general public.  For another half century the steam trains of the United States knew no true competitor whatsoever.  Technology in the design and creation of more efficient locomotives, rolling stock and physical plant created a public and freight transportation network such as had never been seen in the entire history of humankind.  In short, the method of getting from one far point to another no longer required a painfully slow, jarring trip involving either horse or roadcoach. Instead, the railroad of the 1880s and 1890s generally meant a trip of mere minutes or hours versus days and nights for distances over fifty miles.


            Just as people on both sides of the Atlantic were witnessing  rapid changes in the swiftness and stylishness of steam-powered ocean liners which increasingly plied the northern sealanes between the continents of Europe and America, citizens of  Old World and New watched closely as a race of sorts brought forth a near continual change in the quality, reliability and speed of passenger trains in the United States. But it is most important to know that the basic physical profile of a railroad is what dictates its motive power needs.  Beginning in the 1840s, American railroaders faced challenges in the design and construction of locomotives. Every rail line had its own ideas about how an engine was to be constructed and how it should be painted.  Standardization was practically unknown except on the largest lines, and even the standards were constantly being manipulated to create the best machine for any given task.  However, one basic design did evolve throughout the land, one so common in its essential characteristics that all such machines sharing the

4-4-0 wheel arrangement came to be known as the "American" type.


            It was the presence of the long spine of mountains called the Appalachians, broad parallel ribs of stone which stretch along the eastern seaboard from Newfoundland to Alabama, that forced two railroads, the New York Central & Hudson River and the Pennsylvania,  into a war of capital spending and advertising swash which would occupy both firms well into the 1960s.  The same competitive drive would also fuel the nascence of that remarkable 4-4-0 dubbed No.999, an engine which forever changed the role of the American railroad in the public eye.


            The New York Central & Hudson River's reputation as a speed-conscious and elegantly managed carrier was already well established by the beginning of the 1890s. By nature of its naturally almost flat roadbed leading north from the mouth of the  Hudson, the NYC&HR had long enjoyed a reputation as the fastest carrier of either freight or passengers between New York City, Albany, Schenectady and Chicago.  The acquisition and merging by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1869 of the New York Central, the Hudson River, and the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroads allowed that singular family to dominate the east-west transportation scene for more than two decades.  The only other serious  competitor for the wealth of profits in the Chicago to Manhattan passenger and freight trade was the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad.


            By 1890 the Pennsylvania road had already established the slick and stylish luxury train known as the all-Pullman car equipped "PENNSYLVANIA LIMITED." Its run took it up the Susquehanna River valley to the base of the Cumberland Plateau on a largely smooth and gradually ascending route.  The grades were few until the mountains were reached, but then a stiff ascent across the hogbacked Appalachians was required before the Pennsy's trains could reach faster trackage across central Ohio and Indiana and into lakeside Chicago. To accommodate the uphill climb on either side of the divide, the PRR generally used multiple locomotives to pull trains over each summit, a sometimes costly but generally reliable means of securing the trade.


            In contrast, then York Central & Hudson River's line took it some 150 miles northwards through the heart of the Empire State's massive Hudson River valley to the state capital at Albany, across to Syracuse and East Buffalo before the rails penetrated the west via the Catskills divide.  The alluvial Hudson valley provided what came to be called "The Water Level Route," a slogan which the company would market heavily for the next sixty-odd years as the smoothest railroad path anywhere. To power its trains, the Hudson River Railroad most often used single, relatively lightweight engines as the grade and load seldom called for more.  Since the 1850s the same carrier had employed engines of less than 25 tons with driving wheels 80-plus inches in diameter to pull not only passengers, but freight trains as well.  Other contemporaneous lines, to gain a better ratio of pulling power, conservatively held the size of drivers on similar locomotives to a much more modest 50 to 70 inches.


            The NYC&HR's rivalry with the Pennsy was coming to a new head with the announcement of a splendid world's fair to be opened in 1894 outside Chicago.  The World's Columbian Exposition was to be one of this nation's most memorable and trend-setting celebrations, and was the first [?] world exposition the United States had hosted.  Not since the national Centennial Exposition of 1876 at Philadelphia had this nation anticipated or celebrated such a  gathering of citizens and industry alike.


            Set to recall the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus (although missing the actual commemorative year by two),

the Columbian Exposition would delight millions of visitors with its gleaming alabaster architectural forms. Designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who had only recently led the  structural revival of burned-out Chicago, the fair's "City Beautiful" style served as the stage for the grandest public relations magnet the United States had heretofore devised.


            Both the Central and the Pennsy would plan special trains to provide the swiftest service imaginable from the world port of New York City into Chicago.  The Pennsylvania merely upgraded its well-patronized Pennsylvania Limited with all new cars of the latest style.  The New York Central & Hudson River, not to be outdone, would go further still by creating not only an entirely new train to be called "The Exposition Flier," but would revamp the schedule and rolling stock of its crack limited, the "Empire State Express."  The Central's revised standard of service planned after 1892 had never dared been tried on a regular basis.


            Any businessman quickly, safely and comfortably arriving by train at his destination would almost surely demand to have his goods carried by way of the same railroad.  Bulk cargo carried by train has always been the principal means of profit; throwing huge sums of advertising and support dollars into passenger trains generally guaranteed a greater profit from satisfied freight shippers until the advent of other economically competitive forms of transit. In the high-stakes commercial battle for dominance of the New York to Chicago transport market, the Central and the Penny would show each other little mercy.


            The trump card held by the New York Central was its chief public representative officer, General Passenger Agent, George Henry Daniels.  Having begun his salesmanship career as a patent-medicine huckster, Daniels devised a demonstration train to tout the speed potential of his company's train services.  Knowing full well that the success rate found in the proprietary designs of express locomotives built to the plans of NYC & HR’s William Buchanan, chief Superintendent of Motive Power & Rolling Stock, Daniels called on Buchanan to ask if an even faster, one-off version of his Class I engines could be built. Daniels' goal was both secretive and crystal clear, to create a locomotive capable of taking mankind beyond the unattained 100-mile per hour mark. That was all the Scots-born master engineer needed to hear.  Tweaking the form of his typical "I" type 4-4-0 and fuel tender to include (most notably) wheels of greater diameter would create an engine only slightly less powerful but with a tremendous speed potential.


            The usual Buchanan 4-4-0s utilized rather average 70-inch diameter driving wheels guided by a swiveling truck (and tenders likewise) fitted with 36-inch wheels.  The pair of single-expansion cylinders up front were cast and machined  19 inches in diameter with a 24-inch power stroke.


            In contrast the Pennsy's experimental prototype Class T 4-4-0s of 1892 would advance the designs of earlier classes of their locomotives having 60-inch drivers by trying either 78 or 84-inch drivers and 18.5 x 24-inch cylinders depending on the type of trackage to which they were assigned.  The high drivered engines would take trains to and from the base of the mountains at Altoona. The lower-wheeled machines would attack the stiffer grades.  As experiments, four extra engines of similar design (segregated as Class Ts) would have compound (double) expansion  cylinders as a hoped-for approach to greater steam efficiency and horsepower. One more group of engines, built in 1893 as Class X would have an extra set of drivers all 68 inches in diameter set to motion by conventional 19x24-inch cylinders.  These 4-6-0s would serve as either heavy express or mountain service passenger engines.


            New York Central's Buchanan already knew he would not have to so expensively and radically redesign his tested and true I-class engines.  The new engine, if approved by the Central's top officials would be expensive, yes, by the nature of its uniqueness. But as a more remarkable  "Empire State Express" was already being planned -- as far as the train itself was concerned -- it would be more a matter of dollars for flash-and-dazzle value than anything else.  And the NYC&HR excelled at flash-and-dazzle thanks to Passenger Agent Daniels.


            With the blessing of the company's chairman, Cornelius Vanderbilt II,  and the rest of the railroad's Board of Directors, Daniels and Buchanan set to work to birth the transportation coup de grace which would go forever mark the last years of the 19th century and the start of the 20th.


            What rolled forth from the Central's West Albany, New York  locomotive erection shops in the spring of 1894 was the most amazingly large locomotive that people gathered for the moment had ever seen.  Set atop lacy 86.5-inch diameter drivers, with lead truck and tender wheels 40 inches in diameter, the glistening black device, its boiler, smokestack and cylinders fairly gleamed in front-to-back jackets of blue-gray, mirror-bright Russia iron.  Most every exposed edge or piece of plumbing was of highly polished steel  (even the engine's main frames!).  Buchanan's standard black walnut cab, varnished and rubbed down to a furniture finish provided a severely ornamental yet safe haven for the engine crew.  Echoing all this brightwork was chastely applied  striping of aluminum leaf outlining each stave of the towering wooden  cowcatcher, all wheel spoke edges, the outer contours of cab details and the rectangular tender.  The tender, a singularly ornamental art piece, deviated  from the usual minimal lettering and trim.  Atop the slope sheets was the railroad's corporate initials; on the tender's flanks in bold, aluminum leaf spencerian script was the name of the train meant to follow behind, "EMPIRE STATE EXPRESS."  All this for a mere $13,000.


            Yet all was not just jewelry here, for the tender was equipped well for function with a retractable water scoop at the center of the underframe.  Both the Central and the Pennsylvania were, by this time, employing mechanical scoops to lift water at speed from pans located between the rails at level spots along their lines.  By the manipulation of a simple bell-crank lever, the firemen of either roads' passenger engines could drop the scoops at the appointed moment as the engine passed over the narrow pans. At speeds of approximately 20 mph, the centrifugal force of movement could replenish the cistern of the tender non-stop, saving the train three to five precious minutes on its express run.  Without such devices, the train would surely have to stop every thirty to forty miles to replenish its boiler water supply.


            Various senior engine men were carefully interviewed by Buchanan prior to the engine's entering regular public service. To take 999 to her full potential -- and not a soul truly knew what that might be -- not just any engineers or firemen would do. Buchanan himself had worked his way up to the motive power superintendency by working as an engineer.  Only a crew with gentle skill and terrific nerve could be relied upon to safely drive a high-speed train over great distance without tearing up the sharply-tuned machinery propelling them. And the railroad hoped to best not only its own unofficial speed record, but the world record of 55.4 mph over 400 miles set in England in 1888.


            The engine crew required were a fireman who could stand on the pitching apron plate behind the cab, and balanced before the tender, capable of feeding bituminous coal for miles on end by the shovel-load into the firebox inferno.  Likewise, the engineer would have to know literally every inch of the steel path before him, how to eke the most power out of any engine with the least hardship on the mechanism and boiler, and have the feather-touch with both throttle and air brakes.  Passengers' safety and ease of minds was of the utmost importance on a daily basis, and more so on the unannounced publicity run to come.



            On May 9th, 1893, four heavy Wagner parlor cars were coupled to a conventional I-class 4-4-0 for the regular northbound departure of the EMPIRE STATE EXPRESS from Manhattan's Grand Central Station. Not a word was breathed to the general public about what the railroad had in its mind to try before the sun set that day.  The EXPRESS had been steadily running up and down between Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany and New York City since 1891, and its ridership knew it be the best train on the line.  In terms of stately opulence and comfort it had no equal.  At Albany, as usual, the engines and crew were changed and the train continued northward to Syracuse where the process was repeated.  At Syracuse, however, there stood waiting for the  arrival of the EXPRESS, the panting No.999, flocks of people gathered around her as they had been wherever she had been seen since her unveiling.  Surely a magical air of anticipation blew about the depot that afternoon despite the cautious secrecy the railroad company continued to hold on why the engine was there in the first place.


            Engineer Charles Hogan and Fireman Al Elliott were at their posts in the cab of the towering machine as one of its smaller sister engines slid into the Syracuse station on-time with the EXPRESS in tow. At once, the smaller 4-4-0 uncoupled and rolled ahead into the service track so that the relief engine could couple to its train.  Hogan tapped the whistle valve three short hoots, and eased the engine back against the lead car. The coupling joint was gently made, and the air brake, signal and steam heat hoses coupled quickly by trainmen.  At the precisely scheduled second, while Elliott surely tended the fire, Hogan tugged at the engine's bell-rope in response to the fresh conductor's highball signal to depart.  Two hoots on the whistle, a bit of sand dribbled on the railheads from the engine's boiler-top sandbox, and a gentle tug on the throttle brought a soft pull from 999.  The immense drivers might likely have begun to slip in spite of the sands dry tread given them.  A quick drop-off of the throttle and its equally quick reopening restored the power response, and 999 began to pull.  The same drivers, being such much greater in diameter than those recently used, gave the engine a much slower four-beat exhaust.  But within minutes, the train was rolling at the legal speed and both Hogan and Elliott knew what was expected of them and their charge.  The EXPRESS was being run that day as always, no special precautions being made such as the spiking-closed of switches or the placement of watchmen along the line. Not a word should escape to the Pennsylvania Railroad or the press that was not carefully about to be orchestrated by Mr. Daniels and the New York Central.


            Over the line they went as usual, a mile or two faster than usual where possible.  Hogan had taken No.862, a conventional "I" engine, over this same line on a preliminary experimental speed run on September 14, 1891, and yet again with the No.862 on the first run of the "EMPIRE STATE EXPRESS" that same year. 


            As the EXPRESS rolled westbound towards East Buffalo, the grade eased and then became a slight downhill, tangent (straightaway) run.  At this point Hogan began to give the 999 her head.  The valve gear was probably "hooked-up" as close to dead center as could be done while still allowing the pistons to receive steam from the throttle. The result was the minimum amount of work that the pistons' valves would have to do; the steam would expand at its greatest power and the momentum of the train behind would carry the train even further along. Little by little, 999's speed increased over the legal limit.  In the coaches behind, Daniels, Buchanan and invited guests surely hauled out their pocket watches to time the passing of telegraph and mileposts.  Past 60 miles per hour the lineside poles and posts began to blur, and the wooden parlor cars began to sway.  Seventy, eighty, ninety read the second hands of the watches.  Then ninety-five, ninety-nine, ONE HUNDRED and still more.  It was impossible surely, but 999 was still gaining momentum.  Before the curve leading to Rochester station could be reached, at which point the EXPRESS absolutely must slow to safe speed, the Hogan let his steed run for all she was worth, and as much as he could risk.  At about milepost 423, the equine "American" momentarily crossed the speed mark of 112.5 mph, recorded by a number of persons on board the EMPIRE STATE EXPRESS that afternoon. 



            In the absence of a dynamometer or other formal speed-recording equipment, the record placed by Hogan and his unique Buchanan 4-4-0 that day will ever remain unofficial.  But there was no question in anion's mind who was on or near the train that day that something monumental had occurred.  The press next morning was electrified with headlines and cover stories touting the Contrail's incredible victory.  Hogan. Elliott, Daniels and Buchanan were treated as local heroes by their employer and the citizens of New York.


            No.999 was quickly taken directly into the fairgrounds at Chicago and placed on display for the duration of the Colombian Exposition as the "Fastest Locomotive in the World."  She was featured broadly in publications about the fair's industrial exhibits, and joined many other examples of the best locomotives and rolling stock the railroads of the US and the world had to offer in that young decade.


            At the close of the fair, 999 was put into regular service on the EMPIRE STATE EXPRESS, generally working the more level segment of the NYC&HR Syracuse and Buffalo.  While tried elsewhere on the system, she was found, as expected, to be inordinately slippery and hard to handle when passenger trains exceeded five cars.  Once the excitement of the post-Exposition years wore off, and greater strides in heavier and more powerful motive power had been more quietly made, No.999 was scheduled for a return to its birthplace, the West Albany Shops for a major overhaul.


            What emerged from the shops following the scheduled regular repairs was not at all the same 999 as-built.  In its place was an engine with the same boiler, but typical class-I wheel diameters from engine to tender. And the tender no longer carried the script advertising the famous train. No.999 was then set into the passenger motive power pool along with all the other 4-4-0s to earn her keep.  By the 1920s she had been shopped again, this time receiving a different tender and a heavier, more efficient boiler.

Before long, a new number was assigned to the locomotive, just as with all the other "Americans," and soon the former celebrity status was all but forgotten.  At the end of the engine's active career, now number as 1021, the locomotive was powering local and accommodation trains over remote branch lines in upstate New York.



            By the time of the time of the 1925 "Fair of the Iron Horse" in Baltimore, celebrating the founding of the nation's first long-haul railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, No.999 was (more or less) reborn for the ceremonies.  Many other famous engines were marshaled for this signature event, and the once proud 4-4-0 was taken back to Albany Shops for a quick makeover.  The only changes, however, were purely cosmetic.  A variation of the ornate striping and lettering returned, this time in silver paint, on an all-black locomotive.  Yet had it not been for the B&O's celebration, 999 would likely have been cut up for scrap shortly thereafter.  Already, engines built in the early 1900s were becoming outmoded as well, and she was among the oldest surviving of her class on the system.  Yet 999's presence at the Baltimore pageant allowed some major grace.  From that point onwards, 999 would be preserved as a mascot of sorts, a symbol of engineering and corporate might.  In 1938 the same engine was displayed at the New York World's Fair, and again in the 1940 "Chicago Railroad Fair."  Shortly thereafter, however, the Central turned its back firmly away from steam motive power, and pushed No.999 into storage.


            In 195_,  the New York Central System decided to unload its most precious artifacts to museums.  The replica Mohawk & Hudson 0-4-0, "DeWitt Clinton," representative of New York Contrail's earliest antecedent company, and No.999 were donated to institutional preservation.  The "DeWitt Clinton" went to the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village, Michigan, while what the now unsteamable hulk of the 999 and its non-historic tender went to the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry, where both reside to this day.


            In 1994 (?) as the Museum of Science & Industry set about expanding its exhibit spaces and patron parking facilities, it was decided that No.999 was due for some serious facelifting. Years of exposure to the elements while on outdoor display had relegated most wood to hollow dry rot.  The boiler jacket and tender were showing serious rust damage and metal fatigue. CMSI set about seeking both funds and a qualified contractor to restore the engine to some semblance of its historic past.  Eventually, the director of the Connecticut Valley Railroad Museum, J. David Conrad, a specialist in steam locomotive engineering and preservation, was hired to direct the research and restoration work. 


            In the end, Conrad wisely kept the engine from being over-restored to the point of losing all its historic fabric. Recognizing that 4-4-0s of any kind were seriously rare, and that the modernized 999 was just as significant as any modernized class "I," the restoration merely arrested and reversed the previous forty years of exposure, wear and tear.  A new cab and pilot, among other wood parts were replicated using as much original material as possible.  The boiler was stripped of damaging asbestos insulation and recalled with inert synthetic material and new sheet metal.  The whole locomotive and tender had been carefully examined for any surviving historic paint finishes, the carefully bead blasted only where necessary and repainted.  At the completion of the work, No.999 looked exactly as it did when first rescued from obscurity in the mid-1920s.  With the completion of the museum's structural improvements, No.999 was given a fitting, climate controlled interior resting place, wherein the tale of the "Fastest Locomotive in the World" can again be retold and interpreted for generations to come.


            It seems somehow fitting as Amtrak, the nation's passenger railroad, embarks on a speedup of its Northeast corridor trains running between New York, Philadelphia and Boston, that a new train, to be tentatively called the "American Flyer" is being designed. Based on the superbly fast French-designed TGV trains, the new Amtrak train is expected to carry passengers north from Manhattan at speeds up to 150 miles per hour.  For generations, trains using the former Pennsylvania Railroad tracks between Manhattan and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania have been doing bursts of speeds slightly exceeding 100 mph,  Perhaps the day is not far distant, then, that an electric-powered luxury train operating within the Empire State, maybe even on the right-of-way on the old New York & Hudson River Railroad, will once again carry humankind well over the century-mark.