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Altoona awaits refurbished steam locomotive

| Sunday, March 18, 2007

Scott Cessna leans over, his fingers dancing around a coal-black model of a locomotive and its tender, as he explains just what has happened to No. 1361.

The Pennsylvania Railroad Pacific Class K4 steam locomotive is scheduled to come home to Altoona in the summer, 11 years and $1.8 million after the workhorse symbol of the PRR passenger service was transported to Steamtown, in Scranton, for repair.

"The whole front end, the smoke box, is gone," Cessna says. "The smokestack is brand new. The front wheels, the lead truck wheels, are brand new; the axles are brand new. The entire firebox and wrapper sheet four feet up both sides of the boiler are brand new.

"The whole back end, both the inside sheet and the outside sheet, where the butterfly doors are that you shovel the coal .. that whole back end is brand new.

"This locomotive was a basket case. A basket case."

Five years ago, so was its owner, the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona. Both, apparently, are poised for a remarkable return.

Dean McKnight, a retired banker and Altoona native, joined the museum's board of directors in 2002 and quickly discovered that the paean to rail workers on the grounds of the once-mighty PRR was in financial crisis.

"They had a terrific burden," McKnight says. "They had almost half a million dollars in debt. The board didn't want to admit there was a problem. I said, 'People will help if you if they know you need help.' Some wonderful relationships developed because the need was recognized."

McKnight, 67, who no longer serves on the board, tapped a friendship with Ed Cessna, a fellow banker and father of Scott Cessna. The younger Cessna was working as chief financial officer of the Hite Co., an Altoona electrical-supply company, when McKnight called. McKnight asked Scott Cessna to take on the task of rebuilding the museum's financial infrastructure.

"There was massive reorganization here when I got here," says Cessna, executive director of the museum. "They went looking for someone like me because of the situation the museum was in. I didn't graduate from college with a museum-studies degree, and I'm not a curator or exhibit designer. I don't come from the museum world. I spent my entire working life as a controller or CFO kind of guy."

It was Cessna's task to terminate employment for most of almost three dozen museum employees and to reduce the number of days the museum was open. The museum carried a half-million dollars in debt and hadn't built significant fundraising relationships with the corporate and residential communities. Four years later, the staff has been streamlined, a new turntable and quarter roundhouse are under construction, and programs designed to allow interaction with the community have rejuvenated the museum, which is open from March 31 until the week before Christmas.

And, just maybe, the steam whistle atop the museum's prodigal son -- the K4 -- will blow once again.

The Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum rose out of the desire of local rail enthusiasts and veterans of the Pennsylvania Railroad to see a presence sustained in the city. At the height of operations in the 1920s, the PRR employed 18,000 people in a city of 80,000.

The state designated Strasburg, Lancaster County, as home of the state railroad museum in 1965, and stunned residents of Altoona began work on a private museum for their city soon thereafter. The Altoona museum was developed and located in a low-slung building on the PRR grounds for almost two decades. An influx of $16 million in state and federal grant money in the mid-1990s funded the renovation of the four-story PRR master-mechanics building, a stone's throw from the original site.

The board of directors touted the museum as focusing on the stories of railroad heritage and the people who built the railroads. The installation of the museum facilities was paralleled by the growth of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission, an independent organization that also was funded primarily with state and federal grant money. The commission heavily promoted what it called heritage tourism, focusing on the stories behind the Johnstown Flood, Altoona and the railroad, and the Pittsburgh region and its steel and coal heritage.

Soon after Cessna took over the Railroaders Museum in 2002, he was designated an employee of Westsylvania Heritage, an offshoot of the Heritage Preservation Commission. After a year, when Cessna's salary again could be sustained by the streamlined museum, he left the employ of Westsylvania. Westsylvania Heritage, based in Hollidaysburg, was shuttered earlier this year when federal funding ran dry.

Cessna says the railroad museum was criticized when he was hired. It was suggested, he says, that an education mission would suffer without leadership from someone steeped in the museum business.

"I mean, honestly, to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and those kind of folks that made those comments, (I thought), 'If somebody doesn't start paying attention to the financial ramifications around here, there won't be an educational mission, period.' "

Jane Crawford, the state Museum Commission press secretary, recently said the commission was "not in a position to comment" on the question of leadership at the Railroaders Museum.

After turning its focus to seeking private donations and sponsorships, relying more on volunteer support and severely cutting its payroll, the museum has shown profits three of the past four years, Cessna says. There are four full-time employees during the off-season, when they play host to occasional events, with that number boosted by 10 during the peak season in July. The operating budget for this year is $560,000, and the museum continues to make payments on its debt.

If the scale model that Cessna used to describe the work on the K4 were to drop to the floor and break into hundreds of pieces, it would create a picture of the fate to befall the prized locomotive and tender when it arrived at Steamtown, a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service,

Late last year, Mike Tillger was the most recent person tapped to lead refurbishment of the 15-feet-tall, 84-feet-long locomotive and tender. Four people, along with two subcontracted companies and dozens of volunteers, are working on the engine. Tillger was a volunteer before becoming a full-time employee of the railroader's museum 3 1/2 years ago.

"When the railroads were maintaining these, people specialized," Tillger says. "Here we have to be multipurpose-type people. Some of the stuff is a lost art . We have to relearn the trade to replace that specific part."

The Pennsylvania Railroad built more than 400 K4 locomotives in its Altoona shops beginning in 1912. There are two left. One, No. 3750, sits on display at the state railroad museum in Strasburg. The other is No. 1361, retired by the railroad in 1956 after 38 years and more than a million miles of service. Destined for the PRR scrap heap, it was obtained by the city of Altoona and placed at the Horseshoe Curve, an iconic rail transit through the Allegheny Mountains, west of Altoona.

It was placed in the arc of the Horseshoe Curve and sat there for 30 years, when it was brought back into the city and restored so that it could pull excursion trains beginning in 1987. The power train of the engine was worn out, and, as a succession of team leaders and volunteers learned during the years, the rest of the locomotive wasn't in good shape, either.

"We've had some turmoil," Cessna says. "The project's gone on much longer than anybody anticipated it would. ... I was relying on an individual to tell me it's going to take another eight months and another $500,000 to get it done, and eight months and $500,000 later, we were still eight months and $500,000 away from getting it finished.

"It wasn't mismanagement, and he wasn't lying to me. It was every Friday afternoon they found something else wrong with this locomotive."

The restoration team has relied on veteran machinist Joe Kadelak.

"He spends his entire day standing at a lathe and a milling machine up there, making these parts that have never been commercially available and have not been made by anybody since before World War II," Cessna says. "He's a magician, an absolute magician. He's not one of these guys that the Career and Technology Centers are putting out now, where they program the computer screen and hit go. He's there with a micrometer and one hand going at this speed and one hand going at this speed, turning a lathe and making this stuff."

Tillger explains that many of the dozens of worn-out parts replaced on the locomotive and tender weren't original. He says No. 1361 was scheduled to be retired in 1952, but stayed on the rails until 1956, when diesel fuel-powered engines took over the industry.

"You're not going to spend a lot of money on something you know is going to go to the scrap pile," Tillger says, adding that the railroad industry was notorious for cannibalizing its equipment, sometimes retrofitting parts from different models. As a result, many of the parts that should be stamped "1361" to identify them as part of the original locomotive instead reveal just how many hands touched and rebuilt the locomotive.

"We have people come in and say, 'How much of it is original fabric?' My answer to them is: 'None of it,' " Tillger says.

Cessna says he inherited the project and has put in volunteer hours riveting and grinding steel, in part so he could better understand how the work was progressing and what it would take to complete it.

"No sane person would undertake that (project)," he says of the decision to refurbish the locomotive. "But it's bigger than the K. Especially as the state steam locomotive, it sounds corny or cliche or whatever, but it's dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of people that did this for a living in this state. And not just this state but all over."

The restoration team has begun putting the locomotive back together. Cessna planned to take a contingent of media and project supporters to Scranton this month to see the wheels placed back on the engine. It is expected the locomotive will return for the museum's Railfest, July 7-9, or a week or two after the popular event.

When it does return, Cessna says No. 1361 will roll into Altoona under its own power. Maintenance will be done at the museum site, utilizing the new turntable and quarter roundhouse that are expected to be completed by fall. "We're looking at $7.5 million by the time the locomotive, the turntable and the roundhouse project are all completed," Cessna says. The museum board hasn't settled on how much the K4 will be fired and run across the rails during the year.

"There are those who want to see that engine steaming down the mainline pulling those excursion cars," McKnight says. "If you had a Model A Ford, would you take it out every Saturday and run it in a parade• There are some real challenges ahead from the standpoint of how much it should be used. Just maintaining a steam engine is a tremendous amount of work."

McKnight had stepped away from keeping close watch on the museum after Cessna settled in. Now, McKnight says, he's ready to get back into the mix. It would be another opportunity to return to his heritage.

"On my dad's day off, he would take us down to watch the trains," McKnight says. "We never had to cut the grass, because there was nothing but cinders. When you played and slid, you got cinders under your skin ..."

The Railroaders Memorial Museum will open for the season on March 31. For more information about activities planned for the year, visit www.railroadcity.com , or call 814-946-0834.

The K4

Specifications:

* Total length: 84 feet, with tender

* Maximum boiler diameter: 89 inches (minimum 78.5 inches)

* Cylinder diameter: 27 by 28 inches

* Driver wheel diameter: 80 inches

* Boiler pressure: 205 pounds

* Grate area: 69.89 square feet

* Total heating surface: 4,041 square feet

* Total engine weight: 320,000 pounds

* Tractive force: 44,460 pounds

* Water capacity: 11,300 gallons Coal capacity 22 tons

Other facts

* 425 K4 locomotives were built between 1914-28; two remain.

* K4 locomotives are of the Pacific class, with a wheel arrangement of 4-6-2, meaning that their lead truck has four wheels, with six driving wheels, and two wheels on the trailing truck.

* K4s pulled the fastest and most prestigious trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad for many decades.

* When pulling long or heavy trains, it was common for two K4s to be paired to provide sufficient power. Because each engine had a separate crew of engineer and firemen, detailed operating rules were in place to ensure that the engines worked in harmony.

* K4 locomotives 3750 and 1361 were designated the official state steam locomotives in 1987.

* The 3750 is on display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, Lancaster County.

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