REMEMBERING THE CHESSIE STEAM SPECIAL
By Allen Brougham
November 1, 2002
[Chessie System photo]
It has now been 25 years since railroad enthusiasts and historians were treated to a truly time-honored event. That was 1977, the year marking the 150th anniversary of railroading in America. The Chessie System (which included the B&O, C&O and Western Maryland) decided to celebrate the occasion with a series of public steam engine trips across its territory. I thought that now would be a good time to recount some of the memories generated by these offerings a quarter of a century ago.
The decision by the Chessie System to move ahead with the program was fostered greatly by the enthusiasm of its chairman, Hays Watkins, who saw it as a fantastic testament to the legacy of the company. After all, the B&O had heralded its 100th anniversary in such a grand scale 50 years earlier with its Fair of the Iron Horse. Much credit, too, should be given to William Howes, Chessie's vice president of casualty prevention and the company's unofficial "railfan laureate," whose expertise in such matters was legendary.
The locomotive chosen to power the excursions was 4-8-4 class T1, number 2101, built by the Reading Company in 1945, designed for heavy duty freight and passenger service. Retired in 1967 and bought by a scrap dealer, it was later saved by Ross Rowland, a commodities broker, who led its restoration for use in the "American Freedom Train" which visited 138 cities in a 21-month period. Meanwhile, a fleet of open-window and air-conditioned coaches, open tourist car, baggage car, concession car, power car, dormitory car, parlor and observation cars were assembled for the excursions.
Originally, the train was to be called the "B&O Birthday Train." But since the train would be operated system-wide (and Chessie was financing the affair), it was finally decided to showpiece the train for the Chessie System. The entire consist was smartly adorned in Chessie System colors.
From each of the origin locations, a committee composed of local sponsoring organizations was formed. For the area comprising Baltimore and Washington, seven organizations participated. In return, the sponsoring organizations would collectively get six percent of the sales receipts. My own involvement came about through Oakleigh Tours.
The Baltimore-Washington area would enjoy two series of excursions - spring and fall. (Most other locations on the system got only one series.) Six trips were slotted in the initial series in May 1977, plus a two-day "ferry" trip from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to move the train to its next location. Coach tickets were sold for $20 (adults) and $18 (children) with a two dollar reduction on one-way ferry trips. Parlor and observation car tickets were $70 (later reduced to $50). Initially, Chessie System handled all mail-order sales directly.
The first trip was billed a "circle trip," operating from Baltimore to Ellicott City (with a two-hour stop), thence to Point of Rocks (with a photo runby en route), returning via Gaithersburg, Silver Spring and Laurel. Earlier, the Baltimore and Washington sponsoring groups had decided to split the onboard logistical assignments (car hosts, etc.) with the Baltimore groups staffing one trip, the Washington groups staffing the next, etc. Baltimore (including Oakleigh Tours) got the honors for the first trip; I attended with a title of assistant trip coordinator. All staff members were expected to dress in a dark colored suit with white work gloves. Warren Olt, representing both the Baltimore Chapter NRHS and the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, was the trip coordinator.
I was, by then, beginning my seventh year as a railroad employee, but my involvement on the train was as a cosponsoring representative, not as an employee. Still, as later trips operated, when I was not aboard the train, I would revert to my tower operator's function, often being on duty as the train went by. (Now THAT was a real treat!)
When the train returned to Baltimore in October 1977, four more trips were scheduled. Mail-order ticketing was now the responsibility of the cosponsoring organizations, and somehow, some way (he can't remember exactly), Alan Crumbaker, president of Oakleigh Tours, became the sales coordinator for the Baltimore-Washington committee. Also, somehow, some way (I can't remember exactly), I became treasurer for the joint committee. There I was, with a check book, and $100 in seed money to open the account. The plan was to sell the tickets, and the co-sponsoring groups would get a six percent commission at the end. (Sound simple? Ha!)
But about that time, the steam engine developed mechanical trouble, and some of the trips had to be operated with... diesels. For folks who did not want to attend the trips having diesels, they were generally granted refunds. (And guess who had to take care of that?)
The Chessie Steam Special returned the following year (which was, after all, the 150th year following the ceremonial laying of the first stone), culminating a two-year celebration.
Three trips plus a ferry trip were offered from the Baltimore-Washington area in the spring, and four trips plus a ferry trip were offered in the fall. The organizational participation remained mostly the same as in 1977, and I remained as treasurer with the check book. All may have gone smoothly that year except for a rather calamitous development... a railroad strike! The strike, as I recall, was in sympathy with one on the Norfolk & Western. I wrestled with conflicting emotions with it as I was involved in that strike as an employee. I was not a striker, but I was kept from work because of the picket line - selectively placed by the operating union which had gone on strike. Anyway, one of the trips had to be canceled - and guess who had to take care of getting a whole train load of people their refunds!
One of my fondest memories of the Chessie Steam Special was as a paying passenger aboard one of the ferry trips, Baltimore to Cumberland. I splurged and bought a ticket in the observation car. I was one of only about eight passengers in the car. From the open platform on the rear, perched in a chair, I enjoyed the absolute epitome in rail travel. This included about an hour of "quiet time" as the train dwelled at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, with the obs spotted on the middle of the Potomac River bridge. It just doesn't get any better than that!
The Chessie Steam Special ended following the 1978 season, including my involvement, but a series of events billed as the "Chessie Safety Express," using C&O locomotive 614, continued another couple of years.