INSIDE Chico State
0 November 16, 2000
Volume 31 Number 7
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico





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Other Lives

John Johnson, manager, University Printing Services, in his workshop where he is building a replica of the Western Railway #6 engine from the wheels up.
John Johnson, manager, University Printing Services, in his workshop where he is building a replica of the Western Railway #6 engine from the wheels up.

(Photo courtesy John Johnson)

Building Up Steam

John Johnson, Printing Services, always liked trains, but he has a special place in his heart, and now his garage, for the steam locomotive. Ten years ago, Johnson embarked on a journey to build a one-eighth model of the Western Maryland Railway #6, the last of the Shay locomotives built by the defunct Lima Locomotive Works of Lima, Ohio.

The Shay locomotive, named for the man who designed it, is something of an oddity. Where most steam locomotives have a "rod engine which has steam cylinders on either side moving rods back and forth that would be connected to the wheels, this has three cylinders driving a crankshaft and the crankshaft then, with universal joints, goes out to the axels and is geared to the axels," said Johnson. To make room for the engine and the parts to drive it, the boiler is set off to the side instead of centered on the locomotive, and "that makes it a kind of odd, quirky looking locomotive."

The oddity is only part of the appeal of this particular locomotive. It was the largest and the last of its kind ever built. The notoriety, the unique design, and the almost-alive nature of the steam locomotive led to Johnson's commitment to this project.

The Shay steam locomotives, used in logging and mining operations, were built for agility and durability, not for speed. The original Western Maryland Railway #6 ran in the coal mining regions of West Virginia. After eight years, it was retired to a museum. After another 30 years, it became a tourist locomotive in Cass, West Virginia.

In building a model, like all other railroad adventures, the pleasure lies in the journey. Johnson is building his model from scratch, working from blueprints of the original train, and a lifelong commitment. "This is a lifetime project, not something you just do a few evenings and a couple of weekends." Now, ten years into the project, Johnson estimates it will take about another fifteen to complete the almost 800-pound, fully-functioning steam locomotive. This will be an exact replica of the Western Maryland Railway #6 when it rolled out of the Lima Locomotive Works in 1945, only smaller. When completed, it will stand two feet tall and fifteen inches wide, big enough to sit on and ride.

The original blueprints were donated to the California Railroad Museum when the Lima Locomotive Works went out of business in the 1970s. Johnson obtained copies of the original blueprints and used them to build the locomotive. Some of the parts he's had to reverse engineer, taking measurements from the parts that connect to the unknown piece.

"One of the interesting things about this particular hobby is that even though I have the plans, I have no instructions," Johnson said. Each step along the way he has to decide what part should be created and built first. His detailed diary will eventually become the basis of a book on building the Western Maryland #6.

Locomotive building requires many skills. By the end of the project Johnson will be a woodworker, machinist, welder, and boiler-maker. He spent about six years creating wood patterns of about two dozen parts, such as universal joints, wheels, journey boxes, brackets, caps, and parts of the frame. Although he had some prior experience with woodworking, "I never knew how to make a pattern, but I went over to the library, checked out some books, and just read the books."

Because he doesn't live in a neighborhood where he could have his own foundry, Johnson took the parts to a foundry in Berkeley to have the metal castings done. "When I showed up at the foundry, they said, "These are terrific.' I just read the book and did what it told me to do." He has taken the same approach to teaching himself the other trades.

Live steam model railroading includes people from around the world. Once the castings were done, other hobbyists, known as live steamers, contacted Johnson, interested in purchasing them. This has led to a small business that helps defray some of the costs of construction. Contact Johnson about his Web site for more information about the locomotive, the parts, and the project.

-- Barbara Alderson


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