Skip to content

Return Of The 401

September 26, 2010

September 18, 2010, was a good day to be in Monticello, Illinois, if you are an aficionado of steam power. On that day, former Southern Railway 2-8-0 #401 was officially unveiled to the public after undergoing a lengthy overhaul. I was in Monticello over the weekend; on hand to crunch the ballast and kick the tires at the Monticello Railway Museum.

I must preface this to say that for much of my life, I have lived a scant three hour drive from Monticello, but had yet to venture to the museum. Trains have run behind diesels at this establishment, and the thought of seeing a vintage EMD or Alco wasn’t enough to prompt action on my part. Last year was an appearance by the replica of Southern Pacific’s 4-4-0 “Leviathan,” which I missed out on. I also missed out many years ago when the museum hosted Nickel Plate Road 2-8-2 #587.

The return of #401 to steam, however, was something I was determined to see.

401 steams quietly at Nelson's Crossing

Southern Railway #401 was built by The Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1907, construction number 32,487. The class H-4 locomotive was smaller than some of the consolidations already on the Southern roster, former excursion star Ks1 #630 was three years older and possessing an additional 10,000 pounds of tractive effort, but the H-4 was a capable machine for working some of the lighter lines of the system. This she did for over forty years, before being retired by the Southern in 1949. Following her being written off by the early dieselization of the Southern, #401 was sold to a industrial operation that kept her under steam until 1962.

Showing her last place of employment on the Southern; Memphis, Tennessee

Therein lies the key to her preservation; she was retired early enough that there was still a secondhand market for smaller steam power. Southern was an early convert to the Church of Dieselization, and management made no bones about it’s glee to be rid of those dirty old steam engines. Preservation was not a priority, and at the time the Southern’s upper echelon would have just as soon forgotten about the age of steam. One of the railroad’s classic Ps4 thoroughbreds was saved, due in no small part to a young law student by the name of Claytor who would factor into the Southern story in a much more prominent role a decade later, but this was a somewhat grudging exception to the rule.

Most of the Southern steam power to survive did so because it ended up on someone else’s roster secondhand. The trio that would make up the steam program only returned to the fold after shortline stops in Kentucky and Tennessee. It was a similar happenstance that resulted in #401 escaping the fate of most of the Southern steam fleet in the early fifties.

Monticello bound

So here it was, 2010, and this 1907 graduate of Eddystone was hot and rolling under her own power for the first time in over a half-century. For a museum such as Monticello, she is an ideal type of locomotive. She is a fairly simple machine, lacking such labor intensive amenities as a feedwater heater, superheater and the like. She is light on her feet, and her tractive effort a tad shy of 39,000 pounds is plenty to handle anything the museum will throw at her.

Historically and mechanically, she is a significant part of the preservation scene. She represents a bridge between the power of the late nineteenth century and advances in the art of engineering that would result in the U.S.R.A. designs of the teens; and ultimately the Superpower designs of the late twenties and thirties. Her narrow firebox between the drivers is pure old school, and her slide valves mark her as a saturated engine; slide valves, it turned out, were prone to excessive wear when exposed to the rigors of superheated steam.

At the Nelson's Crossing depot

It is easy to get caught up in the history of such a machine; why it was designed the way it was or how it survived when so many others of its kind were cut up as so much unwanted scrap metal (see above). It is easy to pile on the accolades for the superb restoration job the volunteers of the Monticello Railway Museum have done on this machine (which the photos obviously attest to). Instead, let us stand on the platform at the old Wabash depot in downtown Monticello on Sunday afternoon.

It’s mid-afternoon; we’re waiting on the 3:50 train from the museum. The huge crowds that were teeming around the depot for the Saturday noon dedication have mostly vanished, though a number of die hard fans are still lurking about with cameras in hand. A few people are sitting on the bench outside the depot, waiting on the train.

Among them is a middle aged couple, along with the man’s elderly mother who waits to see a steam locomotive for the first time in decades. She lives in a nursing home nearby, and has been hearing the call of the whistle for a couple of days. Her son and daughter-in-law picked her up, bringing her to the station to see the locomotive.

Several more cars pull into the parking lot as train time nears. Some are locals, coming with their kids to see the steam engine that has been in the news for the past several days. Others are fans who have come from as far away as Pennsylvania upon hearing of the engine’s F.R.A. certification having been issued only a few weeks before. Some folks carry the latest in digital cameras; others carry little point and shoot cameras or prepare to point their camera phones to take a picture or a few moments of video. Still others stubbornly cling to their trusty cameras and slide film, pushing that last roll of Kodachrome behind the lens before it can no longer be developed. They are many people from many walks of life with different ideas and interests, all brought together for this single moment by the hard work of a dedicated corps of volunteers and the steaming fruit of their labor of love.

Before long, the mellow three note chord struck by the chime whistle of #401 is heard as the train crosses the county road on the northeast side of town. A couple of minutes pass, and she rolls around the curve and into town, whistle blowing and bell swinging away on the front of her smokebox. She barks lightly as she pulls against the train brakes as she slows in front of the station, in front of the people with their cameras and camera phones and in front of one elderly lady who for a moment gets a taste of the old days even as she sits in her wheelchair.

Pulling into Monticello

This is what it is all about, is it not? All the hard work that went into this locomotive? All the sweating from the physical work and the constant drive to raise funds to allow the work to continue. All the frustration as one thing gets fixed only to find another that needs work. Sure, it’s fun to work around a living and breathing locomotive. Sure, the camaraderie of people working on a shared project is special. But the moments like this when the results of your work bring smiles to faces from ages eight to 80 are priceless.

The train pulls to a stop, and both the waiting people and passengers from the train walk up front to see #401. Parents pose their kids next to the engine; some go willingly while others take a little more coaxing. An older fan calls up to the fireman (permission to come aboard, sir?”) and is welcomed up for a few moments.

"Permission to aboard, sir?"

Before long the conductor in his traditional black suit and pillbox hat is calling for passengers to board the train, and with an “all aboard” gives the highball. In the spirit of the moment, we miss the breaking of the illusion as the locomotive shoves the train backward out of town; it might not have been quite like that in the old days, but who cares? Once the engine is out of sight, those remaining on the platform take a moment and listen to the barking exhaust fade into the distance. One can almost lose one’s self in the moment; what year is it anyway?

So I’ll take a moment to give a word of thanks to the folks of the Monticello Railway Museum; the job was well done.

And here is a welcome back to the world of the living to number 401 in the form of several photos taken during the night photo session organized by photographer Steve Smedley on Saturday night.

Waiting her turn at Nelson's Crossing

Posed with Norfolk Southern's executive F units

Moving back toward the Nelson's Crossing depot for another pose

Posed at the Nelson's Crossing depot


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2010 3:15 pm

    Great article! I’ve always loved steam engines, even though I was born too late to experiance them firsthand, and all the infrastructure that went along with the care and servicing of these machines. Maybe that’s why I like to model the steam era so much. And the lighter machines such as the 401 are my favorite types of engines to model. Give me an old school Consolidation, Mogul, or American Standard any day!

  2. arjun permalink
    September 26, 2010 4:57 pm


  3. Brigid permalink
    September 26, 2010 6:10 pm

    One of my oldest memories is of an old steam whistle at one of the steel companies back in Gary, Indiana back in the early 60’s I remember it scaring me at the time, I didn’t know what it was til years later.
    Dad was a brakeman I think for a while on one of those railroads in that vicinity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: