Elvas Tower: Tourist Railroads! Part 2 - Elvas Tower

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Tourist Railroads! Part 2 Rate Topic: -----

#91 User is offline   Mipman25 

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Posted 27 May 2022 - 09:25 PM


My eyes shot open. I know Big Al had a lifelong love with the B&O's enormous 2-8-8-4s, but I didn't know he almost owned one!

"Really? What happened?"

"Come with me."

Big Al led me to his office, just like the old days in Pittsburgh. After we got seated, Big Al took a deep breath and pointed behind me.

"You see that big girl up there?" He pointed to a photograph hanging on his wall.

(Original photo by Bob Rathke)

"That the one that got away?" I asked.

"Indeed. What you know as ERPS goes as far back as 1961. Steam was dying out on the B&O and they had a few steamers stashed in Butler. I remember it clear as day, it was two Mountains and that very EM-1. A group started up to save the three locomotives and I joined without hesitation. I was about 18 or 20 at this time and I pitched the name 'Allegheny Thunder' for the group. It stuck, and that was what our organization came to be known as."

"Man, wish you kept that name for what you have now!" I interrupted. Mr. Renzulli chuckled and continued.

"Getting funds to buy the locomotives was rough, though. We could only make do with one of the Mountains, numbered 726. Thankfully, we heard the B&O Museum got ahold of the EM-1, so we didn't feel too guilty. The other Mountain eventually went off to scrap, and we had our locomotive. As soon as 726 hit the shop, we got word that a supervisor sent the EM-1 off to a scrapyard without knowing the B&O Museum planned to obtain her."

The room was dead silent as Big Al looked up at the ceiling forlornly.

"God, if I had known that d@mn supervisor would overlook such a beautiful piece of machinery, I would've begged the boys to buy her instead. I would've bought her with my own money if I could."

All I could do was shake my head.

"I heard that supervisor was fired, but that's not enough for letting the last EM-1 go to waste. Every so often, I dream that we actually did get the 659 and run her on excursion trains. I can feel the heat of the firebox and hear those sixteen drivers carrying that mammoth boiler and the moan of that old hooter whistle. Even though I've never been in the cab of an EM-1, for some reason, I know exactly what it would've felt like. I swear, whenever I have that dream, it feels all too real. Whenever I wake up, I still hear her rumbling by."

At this point, I had no words. Every time Big Al somehow conjured one of those EM-1s? He was dreaming about his greatest failure.

"Big Al, I-I'm so sorry..."

"It's alright, it's 57 years in the past now. Even then, I've always kept that picture up there as a reminder. Have you ever wondered why I've bought every B&O steamer I could get my hands on? It's not because I'm greedy or I don't know how to spend my money. I just don't want them to end up like she did."

While the tragic tale of 659 held the spotlight, I inquired about the locomotive they did save.

"726? We leased a shed in Pittsburgh and restored her in 1965. We ended up running a few excursions with her on the B&O, but those fizzled out by the time Chessie System came along. After that, we kept her stored serviceable but couldn't find many opportunities to run her. Come 1993, though, we talked with CSX about obtaining a lease to run 726 on the mainline and settled on 20 years. At this point, we were looking to rebrand ourselves and purchase more equipment, so we settled on the name Eastern Railroad Preservation Society."

"So wait, why haven't I heard about 726?"

"Oh, you've known 726 all this time, just not as 726. When we started excursions in 1993, we decided to renumber her. Not only did this new number represent the last steam locomotive to be built for the B&O, but it also represents the first locomotive I ever got a cabride in. She's warming up for tonight's excursion right now!"

I was blindsided by how long it took me to realize 5594 had some history behind her!

"So you've been running '94 since the 60's? That's incredible!"

"Yes siree! She's been my pride and joy for decades, and although I've acquired more locomotives since then, she's always had a place in my heart. I always make sure she gets some runtime when she's not down for inspection. You know what, I got a few slides of her back when she was 726."

Big Al went through his seemingly endless photo albums, one of which was labeled "BUTLER VALLEY RAILWAY." I was about to inquire, but I decided to let Big Al find the pictures of 726 first.

"Here they are!" He chirped. "This was back when we kept her in that shed."

Attached Image: B&O 726 shed.jpg

"Here she is doing her thing. The railfans loved her back then, and we redded up a few B&O heavyweights for those who wanted to ride. They're still with us today!"

Attached Image: B&O 726 crossing.jpg

"Oh, I love this one. I remember I was at the throttle of this photo runby, and a railfan gave me this slide after all was said and done. Look at that smoke!"

Attached Image: B&O 726 photo runby.jpg

As crazy as it was seeing 5594 running almost 60 years ago under a different number, I couldn't hold in my curiosity about Big Al's BVR album.

"Those are some nice slides, Al, but what's up with that Butler Valley thing?"

"Oh, this?" Big Al chuckled and pulled out the Butler Valley album. "Let me tell you, we're running on one interesting shortline. Heh, their roster might almost be more historic than ours! Almost."

Hold on, what is the BVR? It's old enough for Big Al to have a photo album? Just what could their historic roster have been? Stay tuned for part 3 of 5!

#92 User is offline   Mipman25 

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Posted 28 May 2022 - 10:11 PM

Happy 10 years of the first ERPS screenshot (which was technically yesterday but I'm late as usual)! Let's celebrate with some screenshots which are not of ERPS and learn the history of the Butler Valley Railway!


"The BVR used to be an old Pennsylvania branch line which lasted into Conrail. Ore was the big commodity on the line, but whenever the deposits were depleted, the branch was abandoned. 1987, I think that was?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, Big Al."

"Heh! Anyway, as luck would have it, Conrail missed a big opportunity by a few years. A huge industrial park was built near Butler right after the branch shut down, and let me tell you, with how many companies were in there they could have used a reliable little railroad. And that's what Butler Valley was! It was spun off the industrial park as a way to service it and connect it to Norfolk Southern and Bessemer over the old Pennsy branch.

"Now, I didn't know anything about this until one day after I visited the Allegheny Thunder boys. I was driving back to Pittsburgh when I heard one of those ol' honker horns. I thought it was a Conrail engine with a gummed up horn and stuck around, and I'm glad I did. You wanna guess what I saw?"

My mind drew a blank. None of the BVR engines I knew about looked like they would have a single chime horn, save that NW2 thing working the industrial park.

"Umm, that NW2?"

Big Al opened the album, and I couldn't believe what I saw.

Attached Image: BVR 9033.jpg

"Best decision I made that day!" Big Al laughed. "Four old B&O Alcos chugging on down with a train bound for the Conrail interchange! I had heard they switched a terminal at Staten Island but ended up spread around a few steel mills in the area. Butler Valley snatched them all up and used them for road power until the 21st century came along. I kept coming up to chase those Alcos ever since. I would've loved to work for them, but I was already elbow deep with 726 and my day job."

"Wish you woulda bought one too!"

"I almost did!" Big Al laughed. "Luckily they kept one around for display along with that Pennsy steamer. Now that I'd want in my collection!"

Big Al went through the pages, filled with various shots of the four switchers in both B&O blue and a deep coat of DGLE, until something caught his fancy.

"Oh, here's a good one! Those four Alcos didn't have dynamics, and it cost the Butler Valley dearly one day. Three of the switchers had a heavy downhill load, and the crew lost control of the train. They had the e-brake applied and everything, but they had to abandon ship on a sharp curve. The crew was alright, but one of those beautiful little switchers took a nasty tumble. She was pretty much totaled and had to be scrapped. Butler Valley was desperate for power and ended up nabbing the perfect locomotive."

Big Al pushed the album towards me with a picture of an engine I was familiar with for a change; the Pennsylvania Railroad GP7 the shop employee had mentioned earlier.

Attached Image: PRR 8558.jpg

"Hey, I think I know that one! I was talking with someome from the BVR earlier and he said they owned a GP7 for extra power and specials."

"That's the one! It was in cruddy Conrail paint when they bought it, but they went the extra mile and gave her back her old PRR lettering and number! It was one of those heritage units at least ten years before they existed!"

Big Al eventually found another slide of interest, this one showing the SD9s I had seen in the yard.

Attached Image: BVR 104.jpg

"Now here's when those Alcos started to bite the dust. Those old prime movers could get stubborn and parts were becoming less available by the year. The Bessemer & Lake Erie had just retired these old SD9s and Butler Valley was quick to snag them for scrap price. Those Alcos still ran, but all but one were retired by 2000. This is when they started using that new livery with the Bessemer curve. Ain't that gorgeous?"

"Oh yeah," I said, breaking my silence. "Those shortlines really know how to stand out."

"For sure! Oh, I love this one." Said Big Al, flipping to a slide of a Conrail GP38.

Attached Image: BVR 3091.jpg

"You see that right there? That's the first coat of Conrail Blue ever applied to a locomotive. That's what the guys who worked there told me, at least."

"That's what they told me, too," I chimed in. "I wonder if it's true or one of those shop myths."

"I just wish they woulda kept that blue if it were true. Anyway, not a lot of slides left here," Big Al resigned, closing the album. "They picked up that Mexican Geep you see behind her and that ex-Amtrak switcher at the same time, and then a few years later that rebuilt SD45 joined the roster and that was that. Happy they've been keeping that Pennsy branch alive, and they've been nothing but gracious to us while we play trains on their property." Big Al laughed, turning his gaze toward the window. "Speaking of which..."

Why reminisce on the past when there's an excursion to be run? Tune in tomorrow for the final part of this five part finale when 5594 steams up for a picturesque run down the BVR!

#93 User is offline   Mipman25 

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Posted 29 May 2022 - 12:43 PM

It's all come to this. After ten years and one day, I bring you the final ERPS update.


Big Al and I immediately split; why spend so much time looking at photo albums when he had history to make in a few hours? The excursion was set to depart at 3 PM, so I had some time to kill. After taking a break to get some lunch and visit Butler, I was back at the ERPS roundhouse in due time. By that point, the excursion had been assembled and positioned at the loading area with 5594 taking the lead. Even though she was a familiar sight to any ERPS regular, learning her history as an excursion star in the '60s, '90s, and today gave me a newfound sense of reverence for the mighty Mountain.

Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 12-48-37.jpg
Obviously enough, however, 5594 wasn't alone. The Butler Valley's GP7 was coupled up behind her, hopefully to just provide dynamic braking while 5594 did the heavy lifting. Big Al walked past me and up to the cab, so I took the opportunity to prod him.

"Hey Big Al, what's that gas can doing there?"

Big Al, of course, let out a chortle. "Extra weight, Big D!" Big Al climbed up into the cab, and we parted ways as I got settled in the last car in the train, a B&O heavyweight observation car. Once everyone had boarded, two triumphant blasts of Big Al's prized B&O 6-chime and we were off.

Even if the speed was restricted to 25 miles per hour the whole time, ERPS had the best possible backup plan once their time in Pittsburgh was up. The Butler Valley was dotted with dense forests which broke up for awe-inspiring vistas of rolling plains and homely Amish villages.

Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 01-19-53.jpg
Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 01-25-32.jpg

My sentimental journey was rudely interrupted by a duel between a distant S-3L and Big Al on the B&O 6-chime. I came to my senses and realized we were passing a BVR train! By process of elimination, this must have been the local with the two Geeps. As we passed by, Big Al's slide of 101 as a Conrail Geep resonated in my mind. Even before Conrail, 101 ran for the New York Central and Penn Central, two names lost to time. It's interesting how even the most contemporary looking locomotives can have so much history behind them.

Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 01-14-35.jpg

As the excursion continued, I slowly realized why Big Al had conceived the name Allegheny Thunder. As we approached grades nearing 2%, Big Al had the throttle as wide as it could go and 5594 sent tremors through the Butler valley.

Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 01-32-52.jpg
Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 01-35-10.jpg

As we neared the BVR's eastern endpoint at Freeport, we were treated to a dramatic climax that made everything we had seen before look every bit as gorgeous as a suburban neighborhood. The Butler branch cut into a canyon and weaved along the river, making for the single best view I had ever seen out of an ERPS excursion.

Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 01-36-21.jpg
Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 01-38-13.jpg

Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 01-39-18.jpg

Finally, the trees transitioned to buildings as we made our final approach to Freeport. It wasn't hard to see why Pittsburgh is known as the Bridge City as we approached the wye.

Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 01-42-40.jpg

Finally, we screeched to a halt in an empty siding, concluding the first leg of our journey. While the power uncoupled from the front and turned around, we were offered refreshments from both diners in the consist. It was also announced over the PA system in each car that we would be having a photo runby on the way back! It had been a long time since my last photo runby, so this was very exciting. After a brief intermission, 5594 was back on point and we were headed back to Butler.

Not for long, however; the ERPS boys had found the perfect photo runby location just west of Freeport. Located deep in a cut, the views were fantastic and the grades were flat so Big Al would have no problem reversing. The air was full of trepidation as we slowed to a halt and everyone lined up for photos. As the train reversed, I scrambled everywhere trying to find the perfect spot. I wanted to highlight the valley as much as the rock fill just in front of me and the trees overhead, but thankfully I found my spot before 5594 barked an order at the photographers to stay in line. It was hard to keep the camera steady as 5594 slowly approached, each blast from her stack shaking my very being. For a man who loved everything about our nation's railroads as much as Big Al, he knew how to please a railfan.

Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 02-07-59.jpg

Just as quickly as she came, 5594 made her way past an audience of thoroughly satisfied railfans. Big Al made no hesitation in immediately reversing back and letting us all on board once again; he had a schedule to live up to. He viciously battled the BVR's grueling grades while we sat back and took in the scenery. Unfortunately, I couldn't see too much with a GP7 in the way, but I took the moment to close my eyes and take in the sounds of 5594 working just as hard as she did in the B&O days.

By 5:30 exact, we had arrived back in Butler. While most of the passengers dispersed after deboarding, I decided to stay around a little longer. Good thing I did; 5594 quickly uncoupled from the front of the train and headed back to the roundhouse while 8558 shuffled the excursion back to the yard. Realizing I had a golden photo op at hand, I followed her toward the turntable and got the picture of a lifetime.

Attached Image: Open Rails 2022-05-29 02-28-04.jpg

As 5594 eased onto the turntable, I took another moment to comprehend what I was seeing. This was a sight from 70 or even 80 years ago happening in front of my face. These locomotives, which some would obliviously see as inanimate objects, had been through so much more than most of us on the property. They wouldn't have seen generations upon generations of railroad technology take sidings for them had it not been for the efforts of Allegheny Thunder and ERPS to preserve them. I realized again it is just as important to acknowledge what built us today as it is to look to the future and see how our history, whether good or bad, can influence it. As the turntable slowly began to spin, I gave Big Al Renzulli one last wave and walked off the property. I wouldn't know if or when I'd be returning, but I had every bit of faith in Big Al and whoever would succeed him to keep the ERPS fleet, the spirit of the B&O, and the foundations of our country alive.

And that's that. That's what I'm calling the end of the ERPS saga. While it had a ton of flaws and plotholes I couldn't find my way out of, it was something truly unique and story driven and I had a lot of fun with it. At the end of the day, that enjoyment is really what it's all about. I may come back to the earlier posts in this update later and give them some proper screenshots, and then after that I'll have one last ERPS gift for whoever's still reading this thread.

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