The Chessie System, as an independent railroad would last but a mere eight years. However, its legacy, continues to live on to this day. The railroad itself was comprised of three principle railroads, the Chesapeake & Ohio, Baltimore & Ohio, and Western Maryland (which by the early 1970s was a B&O subsidiary). From a corporate standpoint the railroad was quite a moneymaker and earned handsome profits during a time (the 1970s) when the industry as a whole was spiraling downward. What the railroad, however, is most famous for was its striking paint scheme which featured a dazzling blend of blue, yellow, and vermilion with the kitten’s silhouette overlaid in the Chessie “C.”
The Chessie System has its beginnings that date back to the early 1960s. During this time the New York Central and Chesapeake & Ohio began showing serious interest in the Baltimore & Ohio. The B&O was one of the three major trunk lines (the other two being the Pennsylvania Railroad and NYC) extending from the ports of the east coast to Chicago and St. Louis. However, it was by far always the weakest and by the late 1950s it was showing signs of once again plunging into receivership. Interested in the potential that the B&O could give the NYC in terms of both a more southerly reach as well as the rich coal fields the railroad served, Alfred Perlman, president of the NYC, began courting the B&O board.
However, the B&O was well aware of the NYC’s precarious financial position also and was naturally hesitant of a merger with the larger road. The B&O had also been in talks with the C&O for a few years and by the early 1960s, after the NYC was again rebuffed (this time by a proposal which included the B&O, C&O, and NYC), the B&O board voted in 1963 to award the stock offer to the C&O thereby giving it overriding control of the B&O. In the end, it was for the best as the NYC would go on to merge with the PRR, a disastrous decision that brought down the entire Northeastern rail market when the ill-fated Penn Central Corporation went bankrupt in the early 1970s.
However, rather than merge the B&O out of existence, the C&O chose to gradually combine the two railroads (by slowly merging departments and other management areas over the years) working more as allies. This was done for several reasons but two of the most important was to not upset the extremely loyal B&O employees to its company, which would not accept an outright take over and dissolution easily, and to retain the tax exemption status the B&O held in the State of Maryland.
This setup would last until 1972 when a new holding company was created to oversee the railroads, which would also include the Western Maryland, a much smaller railroad that served parts of Maryland and West Virginia and had come under the control of the B&O. This new company was known as the Chessie System and it remained little more than simply a name, which united all three railroads. All three continued to remain as separate entities the only significant difference, aside from some consolidated departments, was the vibrant new paint scheme they shared of blue, yellow, and vermilion (although their names continued to be stenciled on locomotives; “B&O,” “C&O,” and “WM”). This would change slightly in 1976 when the Chessie began to operate more as one, unified, railroad although the individual company names continued to be included on locomotives.
The biggest change for the company began in 1980 when Chessie was merged with southeastern conglomerate, Seaboard Coast Line Industries (which consisted of a number of railroads, such as the Seaboard Coast Line, Louisville & Nashville, Clinchfield, and others), to create a holding company known as CSX Corporation (and the division which would operate the railroads was CSX Transportation). After the formation of CSX, the railroads under its banner began to quickly disappear. Seaboard Coast Line Industries became simply the Seaboard System and was merged into CSX in 1982 and the Chessie roads would follow five years later. The WM was formally merged out of existence when it was folded into the B&O, which itself disappeared on April 30th, 1987 (just weeks after its 160th birthday). The C&O soon followed a month later in May and with that so ended the Chessie System.
It is rather interesting that a railroad, which lived essentially only 8 years, continues to hold such a mystic about it and not only has had several books written in its honor but also numerous layouts modeled after it. Perhaps this is due to both its alluring paint scheme as well as the legendary railroads that made up the Chessie. Whatever the reason there is no denying the impact it continues to hold over railfans and historians today and will undoubtedly continue to so into the future.
What evolved into the Chessie Steam Special was a unique excursion experience that has never really been duplicated before or since. The purpose of the train was to celebrate the Chessie System's sesquicentennial during 1977 since venerable subsidiary Baltimore & Ohio was turning 150 years old that year. However, before the train was even fully conceived (an idea that was changed and amended several times) the railroad spent lavishly to celebrate the event with dinners and various social functions. In today's age of railroading such a concept seems hard to fathom but during that era such celebrations still occurred (although they were becoming less common). The Special ran during much of 1977 calendar year, and into 1978 drawing thousands of visitors over that time.
What was once a common practice, by the 1970s much of the railroad industry was no longer enthused about or interested in celebrating its heritage and history. The decade was extremely hard on many with numerous bankruptcies, cutbacks, and/or mergers taking place to stave off insolvency and collapse. However, the Chessie System was about to celebrate is sesquicentennial (the B&O was formed on February 28, 1827) and as a road that had remained profitable and successful during the period it had serious plans to pay homage to its heritage thanks to president Hays T. Watkins who was a purveyor of railroad history. The railroad spent the early part of 1977 enjoying festivities and events from a recreation of the famous race between a horse and the first American-built steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb, to an elaborate dinner on February 28th inside the B&O Railroad Museum's Mount Clare Roundhouse.
The railroad also celebrated dessert in grand fashion with a massive birthday cake, baked by the C&O's Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Railroads, and corporations in general, just don't do things like that hardly ever anymore; it's seen as simply too expensive and a needless waste of money. To top off the festivities Chessie management also wanted to offer some kind of excursion trip. At first it was only meant to be a low-key affair and held at the B&O Railroad Museum. This idea was first proposed by Chessie's vice president of public relations, Howard Skidmore, but others at the railroad wanted something more ambitious. One thought involved restoring Chesapeake & Ohio Class F-11 4-6-0 #377 (still on display at the B&O Museum) to pull excursions of open-air cars to Ellicott City along the B&O's original main line. However, with no way to turn the ten-wheeler such a plan was ultimately scrapped.
The grandest of ideas came from Trains Magazine's editor, David P. Morgan, which wanted to have the B&O's only preserved 4-6-2, Class P-7 #5300 (the President Washington) used for the excursions. Unfortunately, while many would have liked to seen this magnificent Pacific restored it was deemed the cost would be more than a quarter-million dollars. Several other large steamers were looked at but once again restoration costs ended every proposal. Finally, an idea came from William F. Howes, Jr. who spoke with Chessie's Skidmore about using Ross Rowland, Jr.'s Reading 4-8-4 #2101. This Class T-1 Northern had been in regular excursion service since March of 1975 when it had pulled the American Freedom Train all over the eastern U.S. With the locomotive still operable discussions began between Rowland, Skidmore, and other members of Chessie management during late 1976.
Rowland, himself drafted the plan for #2101's excursions along the Chessie System, which consisted of 40 trips during the summer of 1977 using eighteen cars that included open-window seats, air-conditioned coaches, and even first-class accommodations. This was a far cry from the original ideas but ultimately President Watkins signed off on it. According to the final agreement the railroad would not even own the locomotive; Rowland worked out a plan to have Chessie lease the 4-8-4 through his corporation, Steam Locomotive Corporation of America, which would perform all maintenance and overhaul work on the Northern. By May of 1977 the train was ready for service with the Chessie System's classic yellow, blue, and vermillion livery splashed over the entire consist including #2101. The scheme was a joint effort by the railroad's director of visual media and design, Franklyn Carr, and artist Bob Lorenz.
While some criticized the use of the Chessie livery on #2101 no one could argue that the Chessie System Special, a name chosen by Skidmore himself, was a one-of-a-kind consist that has never been seen before or since. The train ultimately traveled through 10 states, carried 54,900 passengers, and traversed 18,641 miles in the process. In the March, 1979 issue of Trains Morgan wrote a four-page article on the lasting impression of the Chessie Steam Special and its unique place in the annuals of railroad history. While the train only offered 950 seats during every journey, thousands of patrons could be seen near the tracks during each trip hoping to catch a glimpse of the #2101 and watch it thunder past. Just as Rowland had correctly predicted with the steam-powered American Freedom Train, he was also right in that the public would flock to see #2101 up front on the Chessie Steam Special. Mr. Watkins was so pleased with the success of the Special during 1977 that he allowed it to be extended into 1978 for a second season, where it continued to draw thousands trackside. After the Special concluded in 1978, #2101 was returned to Rowland where the big Northern was stored in Silver Grove, Kentucky.
Sadly, it was here that a roundhouse fire during February of 1979 damaged the locomotive to such an extent that it could not be operated again. Despite the loss of #2101 as an operational locomotive it will forever be remembered during its trips pulling the AFT and Chessie Steam Special during the late 1970s, a time that saw the rebirth of the steam locomotive as a popular excursion attraction which continues through today. For more information about the railroad please visit the Chessie System Historical Society's website. Finally, for additional reading about the company, especially a pictorial history of the railroad in West Virginia covering all three affiliated roads (the C&O, B&O, and WM) consider the book Chessie System by Dave Ori. The book is stuffed full of colored pictures and anyone interested in the railroad will very much enjoy it! If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.