Published: October 31, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Reading 2100 was the railroad's prototype 4-8-4 and the first completed by the company's own shops in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1945.
It was one of 30 locomotives of the T-1 class, designed for fast freight and passenger service. The locomotive was retired in 1957 and later restored for excursion service.
It is best remembered as being the lead locomotive in the Reading's famous "Iron Horse Rambles" excursions the railroad offered the public between 1959-1964.
After various stints leading other excursions, the big Northern is currently owned by the American Steam Railroad Preservation Association and is undergoing restoration in Cleveland, Ohio at the former Baltimore & Ohio roundhouse.
By the late World War II period, Reading president Revelle W. Brown recognized the railroad required larger and more powerful steam locomotives not only to handle wartime traffic demands but also move freight more expeditiously.
However, instead of purchasing new locomotives he tasked the company's superintendent of motive power and rolling equipment, E. Paul Gangewere to consult with Baldwin regarding converting 30 I-10a Consolidations into 4-8-4s.
What they came up with was a fleet of powerful 4-8-4s listed as Class T-1 (2100-2129), capable of producing nearly 68,000 pounds of tractive effort with an ability to move passenger trains at speeds reaching 80 mph.
While the final ten of this class were designed specifically for passenger service - to predominantely handle troop trains - they soon found their way into freight assignments as well.
The 2100 was the prototype 4-8-4 and spent more than a decade handling largely anthracite coal. During its operational tenure it swiftly became celebrated for its formidable handling of such trains.
Ironically, the locomotive saw only a decade of service before the Reading retired its fleet of Northerns in 1957 for newly arriving diesels. However, the locomotive gained a renewed lease on life when the railroad unveiled the Iron Horse Rambles in 1959.
The Rambles mainly took place over the scenic routes of Pennsylvania's vibrant countryside, becoming a popular attraction for tourists and rail enthusiasts alike. These trips accentuated the old-world charm of rail travel, amplified by the dominance of the 2100 as its leading locomotive.
The Rambles were not only a successful public relations campaign during an era when railroads were far more friendly, welcoming, and open to the general public but also demonstrated the importance steam power once played.
These nostalgic trips breathed new life into the aging steam power and marked the 2100 as an admired figure in railroading folklore. The Rambles continued through the 1964 season when the locomotive was again retired.
Following three years of storage, the locomotive was sold to Streigel Equipment and Supply of Baltimore, Maryland, in September, 1967. This marked a significant phase in 2100's life, shifting it from an active life on the tracks to one more dormant.
While at Sreigel Equipment it sat in the scrapyard until 1975 when it was acquired by Ross Rowland as a parts source for his popular American Freedom Train, which led nationwide excursions between 1975-1976 celebrating the nation's Bicentennial.
For more than a decade the Northern remained stored away at the former Western Maryland roundhouse in Hagerstown, Maryland. In 1988 Rowland, Bill Benson, and Richard Kughn (CEO of Lionel) formed a non-profit known as the 2100 Corporation and again restored the locomotive back into operating condition.
During the next two decades it occasionally led excursions, most notably on the Winchester & Western Railroad, a short line located in Virginia.
It was acquired by Thomas Payne in 1998 and subsequently stored at the New York Central roundhouse in St. Thomas, Ontario whereby 2100 was converted to burn oil. Payne had grand hopes for the big Northern to lead excursions but these plans fell through.
It did briefly lead the Golden Pacific Railroad's Tacoma Sightseer excursions on former Milwaukee Road trackage in Washington state before being stored outdoors at Richland, Washington in 2007. Despite its period of dormancy, rail enthusiasts across the nation kept its legacy burning brightly.
Fast forward to the present. The 2100 is now under the custody of the American Steam Railroad Preservation Association (ASRPA). The organization is dedicated to restoring the locomotive to its former glory, an effort that marks an exciting new chapter in the 2100's enduring story.
To appreciate the marvel of the locomotive, it is necessary to revisit its technical specifications. Boasting a wheel-configuration of 4-8-4 (four leading, eight powered, and four trailing), the locomotive stands strong with a locomotive and tender weight of 809,000 lbs.
It possesses a mammoth boiler pressure of 240 psi, and the power of its cylinders is underlined by dimensions of 27" x 32". A notable element of the 2100 is its striking size, extending over an impressive 110 feet (tender included).
Among the many locomotives in the country, few have the privilege of a committed group dedicated to preserving their legacy. The American Steam Railroad Preservation Association, recognizing the 2100's historic significance, commenced the critical work of refurbishing the locomotive in 2015.
Streamlined aesthetic restorations, coupled with permeating technical maintenance, are at the core of the project. The ASRPA strives to make the 2100 fully operational again, with dreams of resuming passenger trips across the United States.
The group also announced in August, 2023 that, in conjunction with FMW Solutions, the locomotive's firebox would be modified to burn vegetable oil fuel. In addition, a later announcement made on October 31, 2023 the group states the locomotive would be painted in American Freedom Train colors once its fully restored.
Despite the substantial completion of several tasks since the beginning of the project, there still remains considerable work to be done. The ASRPA continues its dedicated efforts in pursuit of its objective, with progress regularly updated on its official website for enthusiasts and historians.
Reading 2100's legacy is not simply about machinery, steel, and steam; it is an intricate weave of historical, industrial, and cultural significance. Its contribution to the Reading Railroad at its prime, followed by its charismatic leadership of the Rambles and several other rail excursions, has cemented its place in rail history.
The 2100's popularity as an excursion locomotive stems not only from its technical prowess but also from the nostalgic charm it exudes. This affectionate public sentiment is amplified during its excursion runs, most famously on the Iron Horse Rambles.
The Iron Horse Rambles, draped in the romance of rustling steam and old-world luxury, encapsulated the golden age of railroads. The 2100 became a living symbol of this period, enchanting masses with its awe-inspiring presence.
The zealous efforts of the American Steam Railroad Preservation Association in restoring and preserving the 2100 reflect the locomotive's enduring legacy. The Association's commitment serves as a beacon of hope not just for the resurrected life of the 2100, but as testament to the continuing allure of steam power in the digital age.
As the story of 2100 continues to unfold, so does its testament to an era when steam giants ruled the rails. Even today, it provokes the romance of the past, an emblem of an epoch that enthralled the world with the lure of steam and steel.
Its survival and preservation are a testament to the people who have worked and continue to work tirelessly, and to the millions who stare in awe at this living piece of railway history.