A Civil War-era B & O veteran is back


April 11, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

The Thatcher Perkins has come a long way since the winter day in 2003 when it lay under tons of snow, slate, wood, cast iron and other debris, after half of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum's roof gave way in a record snowstorm.

The Presidents Day weekend roof collapse caused $15 million in damage to the museum's collection of historic locomotives, rolling stock and other rail artifacts - and the Perkins was a woeful sight.

It sustained major cab damage, with its boiler dented and pierced. Its bell and yoke were broken and gouged. Its whistle snapped off at its base, and the engine's smokestack was smashed.

For those who appreciate such machines, it seemed like the end of the line for the venerable locomotive.

However, on a recent day, the Perkins - proudly displaying the number 147 - was back in its rightful place in the museum roundhouse after a two-year restoration led by Rich Timberman, superintendent of rail operations; George Harwood, master metalworker; and master carpenter Zell Olson. Nary a trace of the wounds was in evidence.

Designed by Thatcher Perkins, the B&O's master of machinery, the 147 was one of 11 "Perkins Ten Wheelers" built in 1863.

Some museum hands refer to the Perkins as a "war baby" because of the engine's construction during the Civil War.

Weighing 47 tons, the Perkins was among the B&O's heaviest and most powerful locomotives at the time. It was designed to haul freight and coal cars over tortuous mountain grades, and during wartime, it saw service powering Union troop trains.

After 30 years of traversing the B&O, the Perkins was retired in 1893.

Like a proud papa showing off his new baby, museum curator Dave Shackelford couldn't wait to introduce the restored Perkins to a visitor.

"It gave us a chance to do a more accurate, thorough and detailed restoration," said Shackelford, noting that for years the locomotive bore the number 117. "We found its actual number, 147, on its saddle."

Shackelford said that it was not unusual for railroad equipment to be modified over the years and that the Perkins had not been immune.

The colorful paint patterns of its early days gave way to a dull black. Lettering styles changed with the times. Other parts were exchanged.

"We did a lot of extensive detective work," Shackelford said.

The work on the Perkins took place in a new 27,500-square-foot restoration facility, which has a 54-foot-high ceiling and sits several blocks west of the museum.

The facility contains a maintenance track, long-term restoration tracks, a wood shop and paint booth. An overhead crane can lift loads weighing from 15 tons to 30 tons. Giant machines can turn wheel sets while other machines stamp out metal pieces.

But it was up to Timberman, Harwood and Olson to do the painstaking work of casting missing pieces, fashioning accurate replacement pieces when needed and harvesting what could be saved and reused.

Shackelford points out that there is no racing off to Home Depot when you need a missing part.

"We try and find and agree on creative solutions to the challenges and problems we find," said Harwood, who has been restoring equipment at the museum since 1994.

"We tried to save as much of the original wood from the Perkins as was possible," said Zell, who was working on another locomotive's disassembled wooden cow catcher that morning.

The restoration shop crew carefully rebuilt the smashed Perkins cab, recrafted the Victorian metalwork and repaired the damaged boiler.

Olson and Harwood said that patience was something they needed every day as they approached the work at hand.

The 147 now sports a new smokestack looking as jaunty as the day it first steamed down the rails in 1863.

Returned to its original colors, the Perkins is an absolute eye-popper.

The engine was carefully painted in cobalt blue, Russian iron and vermilion. Its cab is painted a deep and lush cherry-red. The spokes of the locomotive's black tires were carefully pinstriped in a rich yellow-gold.

Its tender carried B&O lettering in a style from the Civil War years. One of the craftsmen carefully wove a rope into a vintage knotted whistle cord.

"It has not been restored to operate. It will be a static exhibit," Shackelford pointed out.

The Perkins will be a major component of a coming exhibition highlighting the B&O's role during the Civil War, Shackelford said.

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