Russell L. Wilcox, 87, draftsman for Penn Central, train enthusiast

July 21, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Russell L. Wilcox, a retired Penn Central Railroad draftsman and railroad enthusiast whose philanthropy resulted in the preservation of a historic electric locomotive, died of a stroke Saturday at St. Joseph Medical Center. The Lutherville resident was 87.

Mr. Wilcox's interest in railroading began early in his childhood. He grew up within earshot of the Western Maryland Railway steam engines that daily chugged and whistled through his neighborhood pulling freight and passenger trains.

"He was born in Baltimore and grew up near Carlin's Park," said his wife of 50 years and lone survivor, the former Anna Mae Foulke. "When he was 2 or 3, his mother used to put him in a stroller and take him down to the Western Maryland tracks near Reisterstown Road. That's when it started."

A 1934 graduate of Polytechnic Institute, Mr. Wilcox attended Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. During that time, he began building highly detailed O-scale model railroad equipment and became one of the founding members of the Baltimore Society of Model Engineers.

During World War II, he worked as a draftsman at the former Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River, and after the war was employed for a time at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant and at Pangborn Steel in Hagerstown.

He returned to Bethlehem Steel briefly before joining the Western Maryland Railway in 1953 as a draftsman. In 1963, he joined the Pennsylvania Railroad's drafting department on the fourth floor of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station.

Mr. Wilcox retired in 1969 from Penn Central, a year after it took over the Pennsy.

During the 1970s, he worked as a consultant to several model railroad suppliers.

"Work began to interfere with pleasure, and that's why he retired from the railroad," Mrs. Wilcox said.

In 1934, when the Pennsy electrified its main lines between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Harrisburg, a new class of high-speed electric locomotive was conceived by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy -- the "father of streamlining" -- for passenger and freight service.

The dark-green, gold-striped 230-ton GG1 locomotives operated for nearly 50 years before being retired in the early 1980s.

In 1977, Howard Serig, a rail historian, asked Mr. Wilcox to oversee the exterior restoration of locomotive No. 4935 -- then still in service, pulling Amtrak passenger trains.

"He liked GG1s because they captivated the nation's public when they were introduced in 1935," said Frank A. Wrabel, a longtime friend, rail historian and author who worked on the project. "He also worked for the Pennsy, saw them every day from the window of his office in Penn Station, and had ridden in their cabs.

"He thought one should be restored, and he had the talent and ability to make it happen. He also was determined and had an uncompromising drive for accuracy, quality and attention to every detail,"

"He was a walking encyclopedia when it came to GG1s and a stickler for detail," said Donald W. Kalkman Jr., who also took part in the restoration.

The locomotive, restored to its original 1942 livery, returned to service in 1977 at Washington's Union Station -- its first run the subject of news media attention.

And after the repainted locomotive was retired in the early 1980s, Mr. Wilcox bought it from Amtrak to save it from being scrapped.

"I think it cost $5,000, and that's a lot less than the Mercedes-Benz he bought that's down in the garage," Mrs. Wilcox said. "I supported him in this effort. He had his locomotive, and I had my cross-stitching."

Mr. Wilcox donated his locomotive to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania at Strasburg, where it remains on display as part of the permanent collection.

Acclaimed for his work on No. 4935, Mr. Wilcox was called to aid in the restoration of three other GG1s held in museums' collections.

An easygoing man who was accessible to other rail fans and historians, he also enjoyed working on his HO-scale model railroad in the basement of his home. He also liked photographing railroad scenes or equipment, which he would incorporate into his models.

"In a world cluttered by the average, Russell's contributions will stand the test of time," Mr. Wrabel said.

Services were held Monday.

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