The Bluegown Blog

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By alicebg, Jun 3 2017 02:53PM

Arguably the N&W's ultimate achievement was the mighty Y6 2-8-8-2 (pictured). The culmination of a long line of Mallets that had its roots in the USRA designs of the WW1 era, the Y6 successfully bucked another trend to become the last word in compound locomotives.

[Compounding, for those who don't know, involves a locomotive having two sets of cylinders, one high pressure and one low pressure, in order to use the steam generated by the boiler twice, thus increasing both efficiency and fuel economy]

The original Mallets were all compounds, but as time went on compounding fell out of favour with US railroads (or, more precisely, with the engine buliders that supplied them) - almost all the later articulateds built in America were simple, ie had four cylinders of the same size and type. Not so the N&W: Roanoke continued to tweak the compound Mallet formula until they nailed it in the form of the Y6, a monster both ferociously powerful and supremely economic.

The other two N&W types harked back to the aforementioned USRA, which in WW1 controlled US railroads and is chiefly remembered for the set of standardised locomotive designs it imposed on often reluctant roads. These actually turned out to be excellent engines, and two were the basis of N&W's 'standard' fleet. The K2 was the USRA 'heavy' 4-8-2 - a more than capable passenger hauler - dressed up as an identical sibling to the state-of-the-art J. Ks successfully subbed for Js on elite trains such as the Pocahontas or Powhatan Arrow, and it's unlikely any passengers noticed the difference - not bad for engines that were essentially over 30 years old.

The final design in this survey was the unsung but vital class S, a heavy 0-8-0 switcher also derived directly from a USRA design. These were to be the last steam locomotives built for a US common carrier, which may seem unglamorous but is in many ways highly appropriate.

Then again, like almost all US railroads, the N&W had its quirks. One expensive indulgence was the Jawn Henry, a huge steam turbine locomotive that was one of several attempts to wring more potential from steam power even as the diesel was taking over. Jawn Henry never quite live up to expectations, and after a short career was unceremoniously scrapped.

Altogether more charming was the N&W's lasting obsession with the 4-8-0 or Mastodon (also known, rather tediously, as the 'Twelve-Wheeler'). This curious melding of the classic 4-6-0 and 2-8-0 designs was little more than blip on most railroads, but the N&W loved them, and they lasted right to end of steam, most famously on the rustic Abingdon branch which in its final years was fastidiously documented by Link and other photographers. From the quaint to the ultra-modern - the N&W really did have it all.

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