Shay engines pulled weight on South Branch

January 18, 1998|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

Shay steam locomotives provided a key ingredient in the development of the Potomac Higlands area.

The Western Maryland Railway operated these high-traction locomotives over the South Branch line in the early days. One Western Maryland Shay locomotive is in the collection of the B&O Railroad museum on Pratt Street, but it is on loan and operating on the Cass Scenic Railroad in southern West Virginia.

Shay, who was born in 1839 and died in 1916, was a logger who understood the need for a better logging locomotive.

In 1880, Shay built a prototype - a flatcar with a steam boiler mounted amidships and fuel and water on opposite ends.

Shay locomotives produced a distinctive sound because of the rapid firing of the cylinders. They chugged along at 12 mph. This slow-speed, high- traction locomotive could climb grades up to 14 percent. One other advantage the Shay had was the exposed cylinders and running gear, which made repairs relatively easy, because everything was accessible.

Shay locomotives had an unusual cylinder arrangement. Two vertical cylinders drove a crankshaft, which in turn drove a pair of geared trucks through a system of universal joints and sliding shafts. On most Shays, the boiler is offset to the left of center to balance the cylinders on the right.

In 1882, Shay assigned the rights to his invention to a company that would eventually become Lima Locomotive Works, which refined and enlarged the design. Shay locomotives could burn coal, oil or wood, and varied from tiny two-cylinder, two-truck models to three-cylinder, four-truck work horses weighing over 400,000 pounds. Shay production continued until 1945. There were 2,771 Shays built, of which about 84 still exist, and many of XTC these remain in active service - usually in tourist railroads. The nearest scenic railroad operating a Shay locomotive is probably the Cass Scenic Railroad, near Charleston, W.Va.

It is still possible to capture something of the sense of adventure of the early South Branch railroad line by traveling on the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad, which has its headquarters on Route 28, a mile north of Romney, W.Va.

The excursion travels 17.5 miles south on the South Branch Valley Railroad to Sycamore Bridge and back (35 miles total). The trip is three hours long and follows the South Branch of the Potomac River into a region known as the Trough. The Trough is a spectacular, narrow mountain valley with clear water and abundant, including American bald eagles.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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