The Nickel Plate's 2-8-4 Berkshires belonged to one of steam's finest family trees. The first 2-8-4, Lima Locomotive Works A-1, inaugurated the superpower era in 1925. A four-wheel trailing truck allowed the A-1 to have a larger firebox and boiler, producing a combination of power and speed never seen before in a steam locomotive. Initially tested on the Boston and Albany Railroad, the new wheel arrangement was dubbed the Berkshire after the mountain range it conquered on the B&A.
At about the same time, the Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland, Ohio assembled a group of railroads under their control, including the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Nickel Plate Road, the Pere Marquette, and the Erie Railroad. Under the leadership of talented designer John Black, an Advisory Mechanical Committee was formed to design engines for the Van Sweringen roads. The group turned out some of the finest locomotives of the super power era, and perhaps its crowning achievement was the "Nickel Plate Berk," a 2-8-4 introduced in 1934 and called by steam historian Eugene Huddleston "the greatest 2-8-4 ever to take to the rails." Alco won the bid to construct the initial 15 S-Class Berks in 1934. But the Pere Marquette's 1937 order for near-identical engines went to Lima, which also built subsequent orders in the 1940s for 65 more Nickel Plate 2-8-4s, classes S-1 through S-3. Delivered in 1949, the final engine in the group, No. 779, would also prove to be the last Lima-built steamer.
Engineers as well as railfans loved the 700-series Berkshires for their looks, speed, power, and wonderful sound. As one engineer recalled, "It was a thrill to operate them." Intended for fast freight, they could also take off with an 18-20 car WWII troop train. After the war, the eighty S-Class steamers played a major role in transforming the Nickel Plate into a highly efficient railroad known for fast speeds and high traffic density. Officially known as the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis, the road offered the shortest route between the Chicago area and Buffalo, with lots of flat, straight track where the Berks could just buckle down and run.
Six of the Nickel Plate engines and two Pere Marquette Berks have survived into preservation. Nickel Plate 765, fresh from a 12-year restoration by the Fort Wayne [Indiana] Railroad Historical Society, appeared last summer at Train Festival 2009 alongside sister Pere Marquette 1225 - the prototype for the locomotive in the movie Polar Express.
The Van Sweringen Berks re-join the M.T.H. lineup in 2020. The Nickel Plate version is modeled as it appeared in the 1950s, sporting illuminated number boards and a Mars light added above the headlight. While these are not the first HO models of these iconic steamers, we believe they are surely the best, with superb detailing, die cast construction for great pulling power, synchronized puffing smoke, steady speeds down to three scale miles per hour, and great sounds that include the actual bell and whistle from restored No. 765.
Learn more about No. 765 at the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society's Web site, www.765.org.