Preservation group gives a 1918 Mikado steam locomotive a new lease on life
February 2013 - Above a roundhouse in Cleveland, the Interstate 490 bridge hums, carrying about 55,000 cars a day across the Cuyahoga River. The river, churned murky by slow-moving freighters loaded with raw materials, is lined with railroads on either side. From a bird’s eye view, the rails appear to converge at the roundhouse, operated by the Midwest Railway Preservation Society, where a crew is restoring giant locomotives whose ages dwarf those of the cars and ships going by.
The MRPS, a nonprofit group founded in 1955, owns and operates the century-old B&O roundhouse to preserve the city’s rail history. Along with the roundhouse, the group owns 20 vintage cars, each in some state of restoration or awaiting it.
One of its projects is proving formidable. The MRPS is working on a 1918 Mikado 2-8-2 steam locomotive, known around the roundhouse as the “4070”—the engine’s identifying number. It’s a 145-ton (without fuel or water) cast iron mammoth whose 2-8-2 notation indicates the wheel arrangement: two leading and two trailing wheels, each set on its own axle, with eight larger powered wheels in the center. The total wheelbase is more than 36 feet upon a heavy-duty steel frame.
Currently, the crew of volunteers is stripping the locomotive down to its lap-riveted boiler so its structural integrity can be ultrasound-tested, says Steve Korpos, the shop’s foreman.
“We’ll determine where weak spots are in the boiler,” he says. “If we find worn-down areas, we’ll cut it out and re-weld that section of the boiler back in with added strength.”
Welders certified to work on boilers will be called in because the boiler needs to hold 200 psi. Lincoln Electric has helped with donations for some of the more complex welding, adds Korpos.
The restoration isn’t easy. Juggling other projects, setbacks (thieves have broken in and stolen parts, and the motor of a small crane recently blew out) and funding issues can test the crew’s patience. But the crew carries on. The goal is to get the 4070 operational by 2018.
By June, the crew expects to have the boiler stripped for inspection, says Charles Sedgley, an MRPS trustee and foreman. “If we can get the crane fixed and the weather breaks, we’ll get the cab off.”
Despite the disassembly required to get to the boiler, “I don’t think we’ll have a problem with this,” he says.
Another one of the crew’s tasks is to fabricate a series of new brass rings for the cast iron pistons that had disintegrated over time.
“The brass is for lubrication and the cast iron is for the pressure. So the cast iron would be facing toward where the steam would be coming from and brass segment on the inside for lubricating as the piston pushed back and forth. There’s a lot of water, moisture and steam oil mixed in with it,” Korpos explains.
Because of the 4070’s age, the crew has to get creative to fabricate some of the replacement parts, such as the piston cylinder liners. Because the original cast iron for the liners was poor quality, Korpos consulted metallurgists he used to work with at a Ford plant, where he was a pattern maker. They suggested finding 6.8 liter Ford pickup truck engine blocks made after 1991 because their metal composition would last the rest of the 4070’s lifetime.
“So, we’ve got to find them in junkyards, melt them down, cast them into the cylinder liners and put them in the locomotive,” Sedgley says.
The 4070 was built in 1918 in Schenectady, N.Y., for the Grand Trunk Western Railroad by the American Locomotive Company, known as ALCO. After the GTWR switched its fleet to all-diesel locomotives, it retired the 4070 in the 60s, when MRPS acquired it for use recreational excursions in Chicago, Indiana, Pennsylvania and ultimately Ohio. During that time, it was featured in the 1984 film “The Natural.” In 1990, the MRPS sidelined it for maintenance, says Sedgley.
The original parts for the 4070 were made to remarkably tight tolerances that today would require CNC. The MRPS’s drawings for the 4070 show bushing on piston ring tolerances, for example, are within 0.001 inch.
“This was precision in 1918,” Korpos says. “I always tell people when I give tours that the knowledge and craftsmanship of these guys back then is amazing. To be able to machine something so precise, doing it better than what NASA does now. Lots of people don’t realize it.”
The pistons themselves weigh several hundred pounds; the heads are 27 inches in diameter and 6 inches thick in the middle where it connects to its rod. The heads are cast concave, curving out in the middle, Korpos adds.
“For 1918, it’s pretty unique how they did that,” he says.
Aside from the rolling stock to be restored, the MRPS is working double-duty to get more stalls of the roundhouse operational. It originally served 15 total, but after years of disrepair and a partial 2003 collapse, the MRPS operates out of four stalls now.
“There’s another group that leased stall space from us with another Mikado that will be here in a year,” Sedgley says. “The darn place is beginning to look like a roundhouse.” MM