(first posted 1/3/2017) Driving a steam locomotive may look glamourous, but the environment isn’t. You’re either too hot or too cold, depending on the season; you get choked by steam and smoke and coal dust; you struggled to see forward and observe signals clearly as boilers grew ever larger and longer; and then there’s the noise and hard ride. So it is perhaps surprising how little effort was made over the years to improve things.
Things evolved slowly. This is Stephenson’s Rocket, of 1829, the first proper steam locomotive. Now you know why the British term isn’t cab, but footplate (still). The footplate is exactly that, there is no cab.
By 1870, the cab had appeared in Britain, but in a very nominal way. This is the ‘Stirling Single’ of the Great Northern Railway, which hauled the fastest expresses of its day. Not a lot of shelter or protection here, and it was anther 50 years before seats were standard..
America moved faster, as the harsher climate demanded, and more generous size of engines allowed larger cabs. In 1869, when the Overland Route, the first transcontinental railroad, was completed at Promontory Point, Utah, the engines had cabs that looked better than anything in Britain until the 1920s – this is a replica of the Central Pacific’s Jupiter. Incidentally, Promontory Point is well worth a visit.
The Overland Route was the work of the Union Pacific, building east from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific (which became part of the Southern Pacific (SP) in 1885) building eastward from San Francisco. The SP’s half was obviously the shorter one – but it was the hard part to build and operate. The defining part was (and still is) the crossing of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, where the line rises to over 7,000 ft. Steep grades on both sides combined with some of the most severe weather in the north America made it probably the most challenging piece of railroad in north America.
Once the line was open, it quickly experienced winter problems. The sheer volume of snow – up to 40 ft can fall in a winter, and then freeze solid, meant the line needed protection The first snowsheds were built as early as 1867. These were basically wooden tunnels, and eventually covered over 40 miles of the Donner Pass. They did the job, and significantly reduced the likelihood of the line being closed by snow.
But the snow sheds had two downsides. Passengers missed 40 miles of scenery, and, more importantly for the SP, the working conditions for engine crews in the sheds were appalling. Imagine being the crew on the second locomotive of a heavy, slow freight train clawing its way up a 2% grade for 80 miles – 40 of those miles in a snow shed. Beyond unpleasant, it was dangerous for the crew, and dangerous for the train as the forward view in a smoke filled tunnel was almost non-existent. And, by 1900, traffic had exceeded the capacity of the route. The SP clearly needed something more than 2-8-0 freight engines to tame Donner.
In 1874, a Swiss engineer Anatole Mallet (1837 – 1919, pronounced Mal-ay, not Mal-et) patented an articulated compound locomotive. A Mallet has two sets of driving wheels, driven by separate pairs of cylinder – high pressure at the rear and low pressure at the front, using the steam from a boiler the length of both sets of wheels in sequence. The rear set of driving wheels were fixed to the frame in the conventional manner, and the front set are attached by a truck that allows the front to turn separately, allowing the engine to navigate tight curves whilst generating the power of two contemporary engines.
ALCO built the first American Mallet for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1903; it was an 0-6-6-0, and was soon being copied by other railroads and builders.
The SP took notice, and in 1909, the Baldwin Locomotive Company of Philadelphia built SP no 4000 and 4001, of class MC-1 (Mallet Consolidation – Consolidation being the term used for a 2-8-0). These were huge machines – weighing over 180 tons, with a tractive effort of over 90,000 lbf, and intended to replace pairs of 2-8-0s on heavy Donner Pass freights, and thereby eliminate the breathing problems faced by engine crews.
It was a mixed success. Yes, it could haul the trains unaided, but the crews still needed respirators in the snowsheds, and the great length made forward visibility difficult. It isn’t clear who decided to try using the engine in reverse – some say it was an official experiment, others that a fed up driver did it off his own bat. Whichever is true (and it may be both), the experiment succeeded in showing how to solve the smoke problem, leaving the challenge of re-configuring the engine to put the crew at the front, while leaving the tender at the rear – something only possible if the engine was oil-fired. And, very quickly after 4000, no 4002 (class MC-2) emerged from Baldwin’s works in late 1909, looking like no steam engine that had gone before.
4002 was mechanically very similar to 4000, but was configured backwards. The cab was now at the front of the engine, perched in front of a rearward facing firebox, with the smokebox facing backwards to the tender. The cab was a fully closed affair, with large front and side windows. The driver sat on the left, with the controls beside him, and the fireman on the left, with his levers for controlling the supply of oil from the tender to firebox. As it was a Mallet, the steam pipes required for the two sets of cylinders plus the oil supply from back to front gave a very complex and (to British eyes, at least) not particularly aesthetic appearance. But it solved the smoke in snowsheds problem!
By 1915, the SP had 46 cab-forwards, in classes MC-2, -4 and -6. In addition, the concept had been applied to passenger engines, in the 2-6-6-2 MM-2 (Mallet Mogul – a 2-6-0 being a Mogul) class, also from Baldwin. These were soon rebuilt as 4-6-6-2, to give greater control and stability at the leading end.
The Mallets succeeded in their original task – they comfortably replaced double-headed 2-8-0s on Donner Pass freights, but were not perfect. The compound design made them better suited to slow speed, and they struggled to get trains over 25 mph.
So, in the late 1920s, the MM-2s were withdrawn, and then rebuilt in the 1930s, as traffic recovered from the Great Depression, as AM-2 (Articulated Mogul) – the compounding was removed, and the high and low pressure cylinders were replaced with four uniformly sized ones. This was intended to simplify maintenance and thus reduce costs, and the rebuilds were faster.
Similarly, the MC-4 and MC-6 classes were rebuilt as simple engines, and from the AC-4 class of 1928 onwards, all new cab forwards were built as simples. The AC-4 increased tractive effort to 116,000 lb ft, or 5,640hp. The AC-8 of 1939 featured larger cab windows with a pointed prow, which was painted silver for added visibility – and made the cab forwards among the most dramatic looking American steam engines.
The climax of the cab forward was the very similar AC-10, AC-11 and AC-12 classes, of 1942-44. Although still a Baldwin 4-8-8-2 with four cylinders and oil firing, weight was over 500 tons and power was up again, to 124,000 lb ft and 6,000hp – more than frontline GE or EMD diesels, which are around 4,400hp.
The last cab forward built was also SP’s last new steam locomotive – AC-12 no 4294, into service in March 1944. She is now the only one in existence, as the SP allowed all the others to go for scrap as service finished in the early 1950s. Withdrawn in 1956, 4294 now has prime position at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, facing her nemesis, an EMD F7 diesel.
Inside the cab, 4294 and her sisters were very different to conventional engines. This is the fireman’s forward facing seat (above), and the view from the driver’s on the right hand side (the door is open).
The later Cab Forwards were not confined to freight services –they were capable of 70 mph, and regularly hauled the Overland Route expresses, and at times assisted the diesel streamliners that began to appear in the late 1930s.
Ultimately, the SP and Baldwin built 256 cab forwards, and used them on other routes in California as well as the Overland Route. Here, some of the fleet rest at Roseville, between San Francisco and Sacramento.
Much of the complex maintenance was handled at the SP’s shops at Sparks, Nevada
The last cab forward crossed Donner Pass in 1957; the days of steam on the SP were ending, and the new diesels were taking over, including the Alco PA in the stunning ‘Daylight’ colour scheme.
Later, the SP preferred EMD products, such as these F7s in the ‘Black Widow’ colour scheme, before being taken over by Union Pacific in 1996. But the F7 and its stablemates were standard American motive power –not the unique ingenuity and drama of the cab forwards.
Snow remains a challenge on Donner to this day, and the SP also had a large fleet of rotary snowploughs in the Sierras. Wouldn’t you love to see that in action? Union Pacific still keeps them in reserve.
But on occasion, even they were not enough; in January 1952, the City of San Francisco streamliner was trapped on Donner Pass by snowdrifts for 3 days.
The SP wasn’t the only railroad concerned enough about engine crew visibility to try new ideas; it was one of the drivers behind the ‘Camelback’ layout. Moving the driver to a cab mounted centrally above the boiler not only boosted his view, but also created space for a firebox that spanned the full width of the chassis, with a vestigial footplate for the poor fireman. The Central Railroad of New Jersey was a particular fan of this layout, and owned over 300. The type was eventually banned on safety grounds.
To see a cab forward today, you need to head to Sacramento, and the wonderful California State Railroad Museum – probably second only to Britain’s NRM for the telling of the railway story. AC-12 no 4294 has pride of place there, and if you ask nicely, they’ll let you in the cab – it really is something else. And while you’re in town, you’ll also want to visit the California Auto Museum (again?) – volunteer run, with a great collection and great guys showing you round.
Good history. Wooden snowsheds were a huge maintenance headache, which is why modern ones are of concrete. Locomotive breathing (as opposed to crew breathing) was an issue motivating the EMD SD Tunnel Motor versions.
According to an old source, a major reason Chinese workers were preferred by CP was, they wouldn’t disappear at every “mining excitement” (silver or gold rush), being bound by contract to work gangs. Also, they were healthier as they boiled their water.
The show “Highway thru Hell” shows equivalent Winter problems for Canadian motorists & truckers. Very sobering to watch, as some wrecks had fatalities.
I’m almost speechless. I’m a big fan of big steam. This is a great post.
I bought a 2017 calander over the weekend solely because there was a cab forward engine in it. Absolutely my most favorite of all time engines.
They do not appear to be showing at this time but if it comes your way:
‘click on synopsis’
is fantastic. And my Canadian friends will tell you that the northern route was at least as challenging as Donner Pass or the Burlington Northern route thru Montana.
You’ve given us a fantastic amount of information and I learned a lot. The cab-forward engines and snow sheds are new to me, but make complete sense.
If you are ever in the mood for another trip to the U.S., might I recommend another train (and transportation) themed museum? While I’ve linked to Part 2, the article has an imbedded link to Part 1.
BIG PAWS, Thank you for a lot of new information and photos on the cab forwards.
As a very young (6 years old) train-fan, my mother would time our walk-to-shopping trips so I could see the 4:30 eastbound express roar through Rockville Centre heading for the hinterlands of Long Island, NY.
While modern trains and automobiles may be more complex than steam engines (not sure about this even considering all the computer components), steam engines wore a lot of their complexities on their sleeves, visible for all to see and marvel at while providing an impressive auditory accompaniment.
Thanks for the memory jogger.
“While modern trains and automobiles may be more complex than steam engines (not sure about this even considering all the computer components)”: as an ex-marine engineer I can confirm that they are, by far, and have to be more carefully built and maintained.
Thanks for this look at a uniquely American big steamer. Yes, they’re generally not as pretty as those purebreds in the UK, but looks was just not a priority for the most part, especially out West and for freight locomotives.
I’ve seen this loco at the Sacramento museum, which is a very fine one. That reminds me that I need to stop there again one of these days.
On that camelback loco, I’m thinking that what looks like a super-wide firebox is the water tank.
No, that is a very wide firebox. It’s called a Wootten firebox, and was designed to allow the engines to burn anthracite coal and culm, which burn slowly and must be spread thin across a wide grate.
Almost all engines with Wootten fire boxes were used by the anthracite roads in Pennsylvania – the Reading, Lehigh Valley, Lackawanna, and some smaller roads. They “burned what they hauled” as most were associated with anthracite coal companies and could get culm for nothing.
Some late large engines with Wootten fire boxes did have rear cabs after Camelbacks were banned, but as the price of anthracite climbed and the coal companies were forced by law to divest their interests in railroads (and vice versa) even the anthracite roads started burning bituminous and stopped needing the Wootten firebox.
Excellent story and photos. Thank You
Fascinating. Never really thought about how dangerous crossing the Sierra in the dead of winter could really be. I would be afraid of avalanches also, especially back then with the vibration and the noise of these old machines.
Cab forwards have a downside limiting their appeal: In order to reduce exposure to toxic gases, collision margin had to be sacrificed. This is why N. American road switchers have a short front hood, & why conventional semis remain popular as well.
Thanks for the story of these unique engines and the challenges they met.
Great article. SP also used cab forwards a lot on the Eugene-Oakridge-Klamath Falls route. Oakridge was the helper junction where helper engines were put on or taken off. My great uncle was an engineer for SP and drove cab forwards as well as other engines. When they were first introduced the engineers complained they had no head on collision margin. But due to their great forward visibility none were even involved in a front end collision, something that cannot be said of other SP heavy power.
I am old enough to remember seeing an 8 wheel drive steam locomotive running into Union Station in Toronto some time in the ’50s. The only thing that has matched this for grandeur was having a Harrier jet land about 200′ away at the Island (now Billy Bishop) Airport while I was sailing nearby, or perhaps having Concorde go directly overhead at <500' altitude, also while sailing. The latter event resulted in half the boats in the dinghy race capsizing in sequence (not me, I was expecting the downwash).
Thank you!!! 11/10.
Great story, always thought they were interesting and unique locomotives. The story does need corrected though, the transcontinental railroad WAS NOT COMPLETED at Promontory Point, Utah. It was completed at Promontory, Utah. Promontory Point sticks out into the Great Salt Lake.
Years later in 1904 Promontory was bypassed the Lucin Cutoff which included a 12 mile causeway in Salt Lake.It shortened the original Transcontinental route by 44 miles. Other such adjustments have been made but most of the original route as built in 1863-69 is still in use today.
Fantastic history of the type–these cab-forward steamers are new to me, as are the snow sheds (though it all makes perfect sense). An impressive engineering accomplishment and a fine solution to the problem; glad one was preserved so we can still see it today. I just wish the same could be said about some other iconic locomotives (the Pennsylvania T1 comes immediately to mind).
Excellent overview of this fascinating class of locomotive.
As part of a collection I got, there was this HO scale cab forward. Above it is a model of the most popular freight locomotive of the 70’s and into the 80’s, GM’s SD 40-2, shown for scale as to how big these cab forwards really were.
I am just young enough to never have ridden in a full sized steam locomotive. I’ve ridden behind one, and been in the cabs of several that were on display, including the now operational Big Boy 4014. I was inside it back in ’77, when it was at the LA County fairgrounds. But I have ridden in F7 and F9’s, Alco S2’s, E8’s, SD40’s, DD40AX’s, and had a “We won’t tell anyone” ride at 3am in a new Conrail SD90MAC, and on the way back I rode in a already well used GE C40-8W. They all pretty much shocked me by how noisy and rough riding they were. I can’t imagine how engine crews tolerated steam engine cabs for all the years they had them.
If I could go back in time, I would put the Cab Forwards at the top of my list for rides. With the Big Boy right behind it, along with an Alco PA, a GE UBoat, and one of the oddballs like a Sharknose. I see endless numbers of NS GE Dash-9 AC conversion units and would love a ride on one of them, too.