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Still steaming after 120 years: Williams Grove to celebrate Engine 643
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Monroe Township

Still steaming after 120 years: Williams Grove to celebrate Engine 643

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Williams Grove Steam Train 12

Pennsylvania Railroad B4a No. 643 sits on the tracks of Williams Grove Historical Steam Engine Association in Monroe Township.

Bill Medlin came running after hearing the news.

The Shiremanstown man was just 16 years old when Pennsylvania Railroad employees acquired the locomotive for their collection of steam engines at Williams Grove.

It was 1961, two years after the Central Iron and Steel mill closed near Harrisburg. Left behind was Engine 643, a six-wheeled heavy switcher the mill had used to haul carloads of ore, slag and ingots.

“I loved it at first sight ... all of it,” Medlin said. “It was a train. It was steam. It was the Pennsylvania Railroad.”

Now, 60 years later, the New Cumberland native can look back on his many years spent as a member of the Williams Grove Historical Steam Engine Association.

For Medlin, a love of trains gathered steam long before he volunteered to help charter members prep the engine for its transfer from the steel mill to the showgrounds in Monroe Township.

“It fascinated me,” Medlin said. “I used to have model trains.”

His journey from tabletop hobby to lifelong passion had roots in family. His father was a brakeman for the Louisville-Nashville line in the 1930s. His great-grandfather was the first station agent at Oak Hall, Centre County, in 1884. Later in life, Medlin worked for the signal department of a railroad.

Switch hitter

The year before the acquisition, Medlin attended a show at Williams Grove that got him interested in the association. He joined in 1962. Since then, Medlin has worked every job on the crew of Engine 643.

“We were cleaning it up and getting it ready for the move,” he said. “The steel mill had a lot of heavy stuff to move around. They had several locomotives in there, including some narrow-gauge engines, just three feet wide on a rail, for tight areas.”

Engine 643 was built by the Altoona shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad in June 1901. It was designed as a switcher, a small engine with a maximum speed of 30 mph and a water capacity of 2,500 gallons.

“This is not a road engine,” Medlin said. “The big locomotives, some of them had 25,000-gallon tanks so they could go the distance. This is a little switch engine meant for shuffling cars around in a freight yard or some passenger terminal. They put trains together or pulled trains apart.”

Williams Grove Steam Train 3

Skip Shimko, fireman and mechanic, discusses how the 120-year-old steam engine at Williams Grove Historic Steam Engine Association operates and the amount of work that goes into maintaining the engine.

The history of Engine 643 from 1901 to 1917 is unknown to Medlin. He can only guess that the locomotive was used somewhere in Pennsylvania for the main function of its design. It was then sold to the steel mill to haul heavy loads around to different parts of the facility.

“Many of the people who founded the association had worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad,” Medlin said. “They knew this engine was ex-Pennsylvania and they knew it was down in the steel mill. They wanted this old locomotive for part of their collection so they purchased it for $1,600 and had it moved here. It was pretty much in running order when they bought it.”

Association members timed the arrival of Engine 643 with their annual fall show so that there was plenty of manpower available to handle the transition. Medlin was part of the team that not only prepped the engine for the move, but repainted it so that it looked spiffy for its new home along a system of private track installed by the membership.

Since 1961, Engine 643 has been a popular feature of special events hosted by the association. While it never wrecked, it did derail a long time ago when a bad joint in the track caused the right front wheel to slip off the rails, Medlin said.

Domino effect

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There was a four-year period about a decade or more ago when Engine 643 was out of commission after state officials condemned the boiler as unsafe. Association members spent $50,000 to remove the boiler from the engine, transport it to a shop for repairs and overhaul and then ship it back to Williams Grove where it was remounted atop the running gear.

“We raised $30,000 in donations,” Medlin said. “The association put up the final $20,000. We made it up the first year.”

The work crew timed the completion of the boiler project with an important meeting and the crucial vote when association members decided to purchase the showgrounds.

“We wanted people to see what a handful of people can do,” Medlin said. “We had that engine running on its own power that night.”

The work crew used the four years of down time to fix a major structural problem.

“This engine sagged on the back end,” he said. “It hung down. One guy called it ‘Droopy Drawers.’ When we took the boiler off to get it fixed that just left the frames and the wheels so we took a hard look at this thing. We stretched three pieces of string from the front end all the way back to see the bend.”

Somewhere along the way, someone at the steel mill had cut a piece out of the bottom of a frame bar. When the bar was repaired, whoever did the welding failed to add enough solder to properly fill the saw cut. To correct the problem, association members had to cut the supports at two other locations to install steel blocks to shore up and level out the frame. But the fix created another problem.

Engine 643 is a machine with two interlocking parts. There is the steam locomotive up front that powers the engine and the tender in the back that supplies the coal and water.

The workspace for the crew straddles the drawbar that connects the tender to the locomotive. The drawbar is covered by a metal plate designed to sit level in the gap between the two units.

By lifting the running gear to level out the engine, association members caused the locomotive side of the engine to be slightly higher than the tender side. So they had to install steel blocks to left the tender to make the plate sit level again.

But lifting the tender made the rear coupler sit four inches higher than the couplers of the passenger cars. So association members had to make yet another adjustment to allow the tender to make the connection.

Wedded bliss

Engine 643 has been a fixture of Williams Grove for generations. Hundreds of area residents ride the train every year during special events.

In May 1979, Harry Kid Jr. and Ann Cook got married atop the steam locomotive. A railroading couple, the bride and groom were dressed in matching pastel-colored leisure suits and bolo ties. About 40 witnesses stood alongside Engine 643 as the couple exchanged vows during a ceremony officiated by Rev. Robert L. Snyder, a Baptist minister.

At the time of his wedding, Kid had been an engineer first with Penn Central and then with Conrail for 23 years. His wife worked in the coffee shop near the Enola railyard. When the couple found out about Engine 643, they leaped at the chance to get hitched on an antique engine.

Death knell

When Engine 643 is unavailable for service, association members use a diesel locomotive to haul visitors around their private track in passenger cars.

The two locomotives illustrate a fundamental difference that explains the downfall of steam. While Engine 643 burns coal to heat water to power the train, the diesel locomotive uses fuel to power an electric generator that provides current to motors within the axle.

To avoid thermal stress on the boiler and working parts, it could take a crew up to five hours to build up enough steam pressure in Engine 643 to get it ready for a run. “You have to bring it up very slowly so that the metal doesn’t suddenly expand,” association member Skip Shimko said. The cool-down after a run has to be just as gradual to avoid a different shock to the system, he said.

By contrast, the diesel locomotive could be ready in about 20 minutes simply by flipping a switch and pressing a button, Shimko said. “Diesel was the death knell for the steam locomotive.”

Not only was steam more labor intensive to operate, railroads needed a lot of specialists to maintain the big engines. Each shop had foundry men to cast parts along with boiler makers, pipefitters, mechanics and machinists. Diesel engines required less overhead with fewer specialists.

“A steam locomotive spends 50% of its time in the shop,” Medlin said. “They needed that much work to keep them going. Fifty percent down time was way too much.”

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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