While its competitors needed monstrous engines to conquer mountain ranges, the New York Central did not. Its Water Level Route from New York City to Chicago was a nearly level raceway built along rivers and the Lake Erie shoreline, and the Central's main line steam engines were racehorses bred for speed on that route. By the early 1930s, the NYC relied on two locomotives for premier services: the 4-6-4 Hudson for its Great Steel Fleet of passenger trains and the nation's largest stable of 4-8-2s for fast freight. Although the 4-8-2 was labeled a Mountain on any other railroad, that would hardly do on the Water Level Route, so the Central named its engines Mohawks after one of the rivers its rails followed.
As the Depression waned in the late 1930s and traffic picked up, the need arose for a dual service locomotive that could augment the Hudson fleet and hustle freight as well. As an experiment, two existing L-2 Mohawks were modified with higher boiler pressure, smaller cylinders, lightweight rods and other reciprocating parts, and roller bearings -which pushed their top speed from 60 mph to the 80 mph needed for passenger work. The success of these engines led to the class L-3 Mohawks delivered from 1940-1942. With over 5000 horsepower on tap, they were equally at home pulling the 20th Century Limited or more than 100 freight cars. A new feature on the L-3s was the largest tender yet seen on a Central locomotive, with a 43-ton-capacity coal bunker. These tenders didn't carry enough water to match all that coal, however, because the Central used water scoops under its tenders and track pans between the rails to enable locomotives to pick up water on the move. One of the most spectacular sights of the steam era was a Mohawk or Hudson taking on water at speed, with excess water blasting out of relief vents on the tender deck.
Class L-3 engines were delivered in three subclasses. ALCo-built class L-3a Mohawks were dual service steamers with roller bearings on all axles. Class L-3b engines, built by both ALCo and Lima, and class L-3c built by ALCo, were fast freight locomotives. Lima-built L-3b's carried a cylindrical Elesco feedwater heater atop their smokebox fronts, while all other L-3's had Worthington feedwater heaters.
The pinnacle of Mohawk development was Lima-built wartime class L-4, with larger 72" drivers. Tenders on the final L-4's were upgraded with an expansion cistern behind the coal bunker, so water could be scooped at up to 75 mph without blowing the tender apart. Famed author Alvin Staufer noted that "The dual purpose concept had really taken hold on the Central and the wartime service they performed was almost beyond belief. It was nothing for them to come in on a heavy freight drag, be serviced, and leave a few hours later at the head of one of the Great Steel Fleet. Whenever possible, the heavy War Trains were assigned to the L-4 Mohawks." Soon after the war, L-4 and L-3 engines were retrofitted with smoke deflectors (a.k.a. "elephant ears") to deflect smoke from the engineer's line of vision. Whether they worked, and whether they improved or ruined the look of the Central's premier freighter, remains a subject of debate among railfans to this day.
Returning in 2017, this NYC racehorse is offered in accurate detail for each subclass of L-3 and L-4. The L-3c and L-4b models are equipped with removable elephant ears, so you can model them before or after smoke deflectors were applied. And like the prototype, these engines are dual purpose: using our optional Digital Command System (DCS), you can change your Mohawk's sound set from passenger to freight or vice versa with a free Internet download. Check out the details on this accurate, full-scale, smooth-running model; we think you'll agree it's a "must-have" for any New York Central fan.
Did you know?
Two Mohawks are the only preserved NYC big steam power. L-3a #3001 was sold to the City of Dallas in 1957 and resides today at the National New York Central Railroad Museum in Elkhart, IN. L-2d #2933 was saved from scrapping by employees who hid her behind large boxes in the Selkirk, NY roundhouse for years. In 1962, when scrapping her would have been a public relations disaster, 2933 was donated to the National Museum of Transport in St. Louis.