Though she is not the largest steam locomotive built in the United States, the former C&O number 614, ‘Greenbrier’ Class J-3a 4-8-4 is the most technologically advanced and the last commercially built passenger steam locomotive built in America. In June 2023 she celebrates her 75th Anniversary with a legacy making her one of the most storied steam locomotives in U.S. Transportation History.
Number 614 was the most modern and advanced passenger steam locomotive when she rolled off the factory floor in June 1948, built by the ‘Cadillac’ of steam locomotive manufacturers – the Lima-Hamilton Locomotive Works formerly located in Lima, Ohio and commissioned by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. She has been celebrated and retired from service multiple times during the last seven-plus decades, each time awaiting her future use or potential demise.
The history of the former C&O number 614 is unlike any in America. Saved from demolition and being forgotten by her benefactor and owner – by what could be considered fate or destiny – she would continue on from an early retirement to eclipse any expectations by her original builders and the railroad that commissioned her to run fast and conquer mountains.
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The C&O 614 History
Steam locomotives in the early 20th Century were slow, yielding a loss of cost-effective operations per mile. With the demand for higher speeds and more efficient power from their line of steam locomotives, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway commissioned the Lima-Hamilton Locomotive Works to construct a new class of ‘superpowered’ steam engines for their passenger service operations.
Designed and built for the C&O, Lima would manufacture what would become the epitome of the new ‘superpowered’; the Class ‘J3’ and ‘J-3a’ steam locomotives. The new J-3a’s delivered more power, operated at higher boiler pressures, utilized pre-heated water feeds to their boilers, and incorporated powered trailing trucks that not only distributed the increased overall weight of the heavy locomotives – a means to reduce damage to existing rail lines – but were also utilized as additional drive wheels.
Number 614 was the last of five Class J-3a steam locomotives produced for the C&O. Numbered 610 through 614, the five became the last passenger steam locomotives built for the iconic southern railroad with origins in Virginia. 614 rolled out of the Lima-Hamilton factory in June of 1948. From there she made her way through Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and eventually to Virginia where she would begin leading the C&O’s famed passenger trains of that era with names like the ‘George Washington’ and the ‘Fast Flying Virginian’.
The Most Modern and Advanced Steam Locomotive
Though the new J-3a’s were not the largest or heaviest steam locomotives built in America, they were powerful and the most advanced. 614, and her four sister locomotives, were built for speed and to conquer the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. 614, the only remaining J-3a steam locomotive – the other four 610 through 613 were sent to the scrapyard back in the mid to late-1950’s – had the latest and most advanced steam locomotive technology every placed in a steam engine in the U.S.
Her power is incredible, like that of a modern diesel locomotive, boasting 5,000 hp. This power enables her to reach speeds over 120 mph and 80+ mph pulling train consists, and conquer mountain grades hauling heavy loads. Speed and powerful were two traits the C&O required of the new J-3a’s.
614 stands tall and robust nearly 16 feet in height and just over 112 feet in length with (4) 38-inch diameter lead wheels, (8) 74-inch diameter main drive wheels, and (4) 42-inch trailing truck wheels. Originally, at the time of her completion, her tender could carry 21,500 gallons of water and 50,000 pounds of coal. In a later restoration to her tender – the first in her long history – her daily operating capabilities would be doubled by increasing her coal carrying capacity to 100,000 pounds, and increasing her water carrying capacity to 50,000 gallons by adding a trailing dedicated water tender to her locomotive consist, numbered 614A.
Retired Before Her Prime
Upon entering service in 1948, 614 quickly exceeded all operational expectations from the C&O Railway. So much so, that additional passenger cars were added to her scheduled daily runs between Cincinnati, Ohio and Washington, D.C. Even after the additional cars, and weight were added, she would still run at mainline track speeds at over 80 mph, taking on steep mountain grades, and reducing her operating schedule between stops.
Sadly, the J-3a’s were designed and brought into revenue service at the end of an era for steam locomotive railway power in the United States. Though they were the epitome of steam powered technology, their demise was fast approaching as more efficient diesel-powered locomotives were brought online by nearly every main line railroad in America.
As a result of the paradigm shift in railroad locomotive power, in 1952 number 614 was retired from revenue passenger service after only four years of being the Chesapeake & Ohio’s premier mainline passenger steam locomotive. She was placed in storage, with the impending probability of most likely being scrapped for her metal and lost to history.
Briefly, in 1955 number 614 was leased by the RF&P Railroad and temporarily brought back into freight train revenue service due to a short-term locomotive shortage. To avoid a fleet numbering issue with their existing locomotives, she was renumbered to number ‘611’. The brief time back on the rails pulling revenue freight trains would only last for a short period of time. By mid-1956 she would eventually find her way back to storage in Kentucky once again with the threat of being scrapped for her metal.
The most advanced steam locomotive produced in America would sit in storage, consistently with the threat of being melted down, her celebrated early history nearly forgotten for the next twenty-years. During that time in America, humans would travel to the Moon and back, jet airplanes would whisk passengers across the country in mere hours, and for most the memory of the famed 614 had faded.
A New Owner, A New Lease on Life
Unlike the previous seven J3-type and four sister J-3a-type 4-8-4s the C&O commissioned the Lima-Hamilton Locomotive Works to produce, miraculously number 614 survived the scrapyard. In 1976, 614 was cosmetically restored – repainted though not functional for pulling trains under her own power – and sent to the famed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. There, she would reside and placed on display for the public. She resided with other great steam and diesel locomotives and railcars from both the B&O and C&O Railroads’ past.
The late 1970’s would usher in 614’s benefactor, railroad enthusiast and former Wall Street commodities trader Ross E. Rowland, Jr. Rowland would springboard her into a new era, save her from obliteration, and cement her into America’s railroading history. Rowland has served on several boards of transportation in New York and New Jersey and in 1982, he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Board of Directors of Amtrak. Ross, as he prefers to be called, would forever change the course of her story and charter her a new legacy – a legacy unlike anything the workers that originally built her back in Lima, Ohio in the late 1940’s could ever imagine.
Rowland was no stranger to leading themed excursion trains. He was a key figure and engineer on several including the ‘Golden Spike Centennial Limited’ train in 1969 and kickstarted the famed ‘American Freedom Train‘ in 1975 and 1976. The American Freedom Train toured around the U.S. in honor of the country’s bicentennial celebration with a 26 railcar consist that was essentially – modern terms – a rolling pop-up exhibit showcasing historic elements from U.S. history.
The American Freedom Train, lead in part by the Rowland-owned Reading Railroad number 2101 steam locomotive, toured to all 48 states in the continental U.S. and was experienced by over 7 million ticketed guests who viewed historic treasures on loan from museums all over the country, such as the Smithsonian. There were many treasures on display, such as George Washington’s copy of the U.S. Constitution and Judy Garland’s dress from the Wizard of Oz.
The First Restoration and Return to Service
Shortly after Ross Rowland’s successful completion of the American Freedom Train, in the late 1970’s the Chessie System Railroad – named after the merger of the B&O, C&O, and Western Maryland railroads – made an arrangement for Rowland, and his former Reading Railroad number 2101 steam locomotive to pull their new themed train excursion, the ‘Chessie Steam Special‘.
After many successful runs of that passenger excursions, tragedy struck one evening in March of 1979. While number 2101 was being stored in the Chessie System railroad’s roundhouse at Silver Grove, Kentucky prior to the third season of that excursion train a fire destroyed the roundhouse and severely damaged Ross’s 2101 steam locomotive.
Feeling solely responsible for the loss of Rowland’s famed asset, the Chessie System donated $100,000 so he could buy and restore a new steam locomotive of his choice. Wisely, and as a boon to her future, Rowland chose C&O number 614 for her technical prowess and mechanical might.
On October 30th, 1979, after 614’s purchase, and being towed to the Western Maryland roundhouse in Hagerstown, Maryland, Rowland, his crew would begin an extensive 12-month restoration and upgrades at a cost of $1.5 million ($6.2 million in 2023) to ready 614 for future excursion passenger rail service.
These modifications would nearly double 614’s total daily operational miles, an important feature since most railroads in the United States had removed their infrastructure provided to support steam locomotives every few hundred miles. 614’s full restoration was completed in early September 1980, readying her for mainline passenger service operations.
In 1980, the Chessie System was looking for a creative way to bring public awareness to their own and the national campaign – called ‘Operation Lifesaver‘ – about rail crossing safety. To their advantage, and with a little luck of timing in 614’s new history being forged by Ross Rowland, Chessie’s Vice President of Casualty Prevention, William F. Howes, Jr., lobbied the idea to Chessie’s company leadership to commission Rowland and his newly restored 614 locomotive to lead twenty-two tours, during the 1980 inaugural season, of Chessie’s safety awareness passenger excursion train – called the ‘Chessie Safety Express‘ – around Chessie’s railway system.
After two-plus decades of being dormant and with her future filled with uncertainty, 614 was back on the rails as designed leading revenue passenger service. Her inaugural run left Baltimore, Maryland on the morning of September 13th, 1980. This first excursion was a roundtrip to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. After decades of uncertainty and her fate seemingly being destined for elimination, 614’s future was reinvigorated that day. Many new chapters in her story would soon be written.
During season one of the Chessie Safety Express, 614 would lead the various segments of tours starting in Baltimore in September 1980. From there, 614 and the excursion train would travel over the next few months to Cumberland, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Clifton Forge, Virginia, Hinton and Huntington, West Virginia. The final excursions concluded that year with a roundtrip from Cincinnati to Ashland, Ohio in early November 1980. After the first season, 614 and eleven of the excursion train cars returned to Hagerstown, Maryland for repair and maintenance.
A Legacy of Service
After the first season of 614’s return to service, the next forty-three years would bring more opportunities to run on mainline railroad tracks. In the early 1980’s, she would lead a more extensive season two of the Chessie Safety Express and a similar operation throughout the state of Florida just prior.
In 1985, number 614 – temporarily renumbered to 614-T – after a month long battery of tests during a brutally cold winter in West Virginia, would go down in history as the only steam locomotive ever leased to lead revenue passenger service on an Amtrak train.
On 614’s return trip back to Maryland, upon completing her test runs from Huntington to Hinton, Ross Rowland worked out an arrangement such that 614 would become the only steam locomotive ever leased by Amtrak to pull one of their revenue passenger trains. One of Amtrak’s routes, known as the ‘Cardinal’, connects Chicago to Washington, D.C.
This Amtrak route is the same route taken many decades prior by 614, and her four sister steam locomotives, where she led the famed C&O first-class passenger trains during the late 1940’s and early 50’s. Amtrak’s Cardinal route connects Chicago on a path through Huntington, snaking through the New River Gorge, over the Allegheny Mountains, across Virginia and terminating in the Nation’s Capital.
On January 30, 1985, 614-T with Ross Rowland at the helm, went into the history books yet again as the only steam locomotive ever leased by Amtrak to lead the Cardinal from Huntington, through the New River Gorge to Hinton, West Virginia. Number 614-T, with a trailing consist of an Amtrak F40 diesel locomotive and Amtrak passenger cars, delivered this portion of the Cardinal’s route, on time reaching mainline track speeds near 80 miles per hour. Upon completion of this historic moment, 614-T would make her way solo back east and put in storage once again waiting for her next opportunity.
The 1990’s would bring about another three-year round of passenger excursion trains, in an a region of the country 614 never previously ran. Beginning in 1996, in conjunction with New Jersey Transit and the Volunteer Railroaders Association, 614 would lead multiple, roundtrip excursions from Hoboken, New Jersey to Port Jervis, New York.
This chapter in 614’s legacy is one that would introduce her, and steam locomotives for that matter, to a new group of individuals – both young and old – into a region of the country she had not previously travelled. The New Jersey to New York excursions would bring her media coverage and fans from all over. Railfans from all over the United States, Europe, and Australia would travel to Hoboken for the opportunity to be a passenger on the new excursion series led by the legendary 614.
The excursions from 1996 through 1998 proved very successful. 614 led multiple segments most with 26 passenger cars taking on average 800 enthusiasts and travelers each trip up steep grades at compulsory track speeds, on mainline segments where a sustained 79 mph was required, across iconic railroad features such as the Moodna Viaduct – in Salisbury Hills, New York – all to reach Port Jervis, New York. In Port Jervis, the city the refurbished and existing 115 feet long turntable in the old Conrail train yards. This was part of the requirements for a successful operation since it was the only location available to turn around the 112 feet long 614 locomotive for her return trips back to Hoboken.
During those three years, 614 would be at the subject of multiple newspaper articles, video documentaries, and countless personal videos and photographs by fans. During this time, she and Ross Rowland would appear on a segment of the Today Show talking about 614 and the season of excursion trains through New York and New Jersey.
A New Millennium and Missed Opportunities
The 2000’s would bring new chapters in the former C&O number 614’s history. Several planned, but never fully realized, new excursion train operations were conceived. From the Greenbrier Presidential Express – dubbed as the America’s first and only first-class passenger train running between the Nations Capital and the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, WV – to the 21st Century Limited and Yellow Ribbon Express; these modern themed excursion trains were never brought to fruition. Once again, the future of 614 was uncertain after the demise of multiple excursion trains she was more than capable of leading.
In 2011, 614 was relocated to the historic rail town of Clifton Forge, Virginia to the C&O Railway Heritage Center operated by the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society. There, 614 was completely repainted in the new ‘Greenbrier Presidential Express’ paint scheme in a striking green and gold paint scheme. Today, after that failed opportunity, she still resides at the Heritage Center on display for visitors to tour.
The story of the legendary former Chesapeake & Ohio number 614 is one of vacillation – great service and patience to be called upon to serve. She has been both neglected and restored multiple times throughout her seventy-five-year history. Currently, as many times prior, the future of 614 is uncertain.
While there are many concepts and proposed efforts to bring 614 back in service and operational performing what she does best – lead passengers through scenic and challenging terrains and locations – nothing currently is definite. To successfully get a new themed train excursion similar to the previous operations led by 614, would take multiple corporate sponsorships and tens of millions dollars.
614 has endured and overcome numerous obstacles during her seventy-five year legacy. She is an icon in the history of transportation in America, one that should not be overlooked or forgotten, but rather celebrated and remembered.