In the late 19th century, railroading was the premier high-tech industry, and world's fairs were the place to compete for bragging rights. So as the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition approached, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad prepared to grab the title of fastest vehicle on earth. In great secrecy at the railroad's West Albany shops, master mechanic William Buchanan directed the construction of a hot-rod 4-4-0 American-type with monstrous drivers more than seven feet in diameter. Named simply "999," the engine exuded class. Her hand-polished Russian iron boiler was highlighted with shining brass trim and piping; her gleaming cab was fashioned of mahogany and maple; and the name of her train was emblazoned boldly on her tender in two-and-a-half-foot-high gold leaf lettering: "Empire State Express."
On May 9, 1893, Buchanan turned his creation over to engineer Charlie Hogan to see what she could do. Son of a railroad foreman, Hogan had begun his career with the New York Central at age 14, as a water boy, and would later rise to superintendent of motive power. On that fine May day, he took control of the 999 in Rochester, New York, and opened the throttle for the run to Buffalo. Calculating his time and distance, railroad officials estimated he had reached 102 miles per hour. They decided to try for an official record the next day. So it was that on May 10, the 999 headed toward Buffalo again, this time with a cargo of railroad officials and newspaper reporters. With fireman Al Elliot madly shoveling coal into the firebox, engineer Hogan opened the throttle all the way. Using stopwatches and counting mileposts, observers on the train determined the 999 had blasted through the Village of Crittenden at 112.5 miles per hour.
That summer, Charlie Hogan and the 999 - the first manmade vehicle to exceed 100 mph - were the toast of the Chicago world's fair. Toy train companies put "999" on the cab of every possible steam locomotive. And amusement park railroads around the globe, in places as far away as Thailand and South Africa, bought over 3,000 live steam versions of the engine.
Critics and researchers later disputed the 999's record, claiming the engine was incapable of reaching 100 mph, and we may never know for sure her actual speed that May afternoon. But one thing is certain: for many years after the World's Columbian Exposition, the 999, along with her sister New York Central 4-4-0s with somewhat smaller, less slippery drivers, held down one of the fastest regular passenger schedules on the planet. Five years after the fair,an article in Scientific American stated that "Locomotive No. 999 and the Empire State Express. opened the present remarkable era of fast, long distance express trains. [They] will always figure conspicuously in the annals of the world's railroads as being the first to maintain a regular schedule speed of over 52 miles an hour for an unprecedented distance and for runs of unprecedented length between stops."