4-8-4 "Northern" Steam Locomotives

Purely on looks the Northern was one of the most aesthetically beautiful steam locomotive designs ever developed.

While some of these handsome locomotives would receive streamlining even without such enhancements they were still a fine looking piece of machinery with a "streamlined" tender, long sweeping boiler, symmetrical wheel arrangement, and centered headlight.

The 4-8-4 gained its name from the Northern Pacific where the locomotive was first operated in the 1920s. However, of all the popular steam designs ever put into service the 4-8-4 was the most widely renamed, from "Greenbriers" on the Chesapeake & Ohio to "Westerns" on the Denver & Rio Grande Western. 

In many ways the 4-8-4 was the pinnacle of steam power power and technology, which utilized only a single set of drivers. Before the diesel era caught on in the late 1930s, three-dozen of largest railroads in America put the locomotive into service in both passenger and freight operations. Surprisingly, despite their size, more than a half-dozen Northerns remain in operation today and several others are preserved.

Union Pacific 4-8-4 #838, featuring classic elephant-ear smoke deflectors, appears to be slowly backing towards the water plug in Council Bluffs, Iowa on September 21, 1958. By the date of this photo the locomotive was finishing up its last days in freight service before retirement. Bernard Corbin photo. American-Rails.com collection.

The decade of the 1920s (the "Roarin' '20s") saw the railroad industry experiencing unbelievable demand among the traveling public. Additionally, all-steel, heavyweight cars were replacing common and lighter wooden-built equipment.

These two factors put together meant that standard designs of the day were struggling to keep up, notably the ubiquitous 4-6-2 Pacific and to some extent the 4-8-2 Mountain.

Realizing this, the Northern Pacific approached the American Locomotive Company (Alco) about developing an even more powerful wheel arrangement to cope with the growing surge. After a lengthy study Alco recommended what was essentially a modified Mountain with a larger firebox for increased steam pressure and power.

The pride of Roanoke. A Norfolk & Western company photo featuring freshly out-shopped 4-8-4 #600 (J) circa 1941.

This firebox would feature a 115 square foot grate area and to accommodate this the locomotive would be fitted with two rear axles instead of only one. In December of 1926 the NP took delivery of 12 of these beauties, listed as Class A and given road numbers 2600-2611.

Compared to the railroad's Class Q Pacifics (it owned no Mountains) the 4-8-4s were at least 50 tons heavier, had boiler pressures nearly 50 psi higher, tractive efforts that were roughly 40% more, and could cruise at higher speeds while pulling heavier loads.

Since the locomotive was first tested and used on the NP it was named the "Northern Pacific" but later shortened as just "Northern."

A crewman climbs aboard Southern Pacific 4-8-4 #4446 (GS-4) which is powering train #90, the "Coast Mail," at Oxnard, California during December of 1956. Retirement nears for these magnificent steamers. William Fahey, Jr. photo.

One particular feature that made the 4-8-4 wheel arrangement so successful was its versatility where it was just as capable of pulling a time-sensitive passenger train clipping along at 70+ mph as it was at lugging a heavy freight train over stiff grades.

This versatility, in addition to the locomotive being equipped with the latest technologies (including superheaters, mechanical stokers, roller bearings on all axles after 1930, and outside valve gear) made the Northern one of the most successful designs of the late-steam era.

Among "Super Power" locomotives more than 1,000 4-8-4' s were built for 36 different railroads. Of special note was the development of roller bearings mentioned above.  

Canadian National 4-8-4 "Confederation" #6309 (ex-Grand Trunk Western, a 1927 product of Alco) and its large 73-inch drivers high-steps its way eastbound with a merchandise freight near London, Ontario on December 30, 1956. Robert Sandusky photo.

Different Names Given For The 4-8-4 Arrangement

Atlantic Coast Line1800s

Canadian NationalConfederations

Central of GeorgiaBig Apples

Chesapeake & OhioGreenbriers

Denver & Rio Grande WesternWesterns

Grand Trunk WesternConfederations


Lehigh ValleyWyomings

Nashville, Chattanooga & St. LouisDixies

Norfolk & WesternJ Class

New York CentralNiagaras

Richmond, Fredericksburg & PotomacGeneralsGovernorsStatesmen

Southern PacificGolden States

Western MarylandPotomacs

Southern Pacific 4-8-4 #4451 (GS-4) departs San Francisco's 3rd & Townsend Depot with train #148, a local commuter run bound for San Jose (46.9 miles away), during the early 1950's. Her average speed on this run will be 33.9 mph. Donald Duke photo.

In 1930 the Timken Roller Bearing Company worked with Alco in producing 4-8-4 Timken #1111, which featured roller bearings on all axles including the tender.

After logging roughly 100,000 miles Timken successfully demonstrated the reduced wear and maintenance of roller bearings and all future steam locomotives were equipped with them (the #1111 was sold to the NP in 1933 and renumbered 2626).

Some of the most well known classes of Northerns to ever operate included the Norfolk & Western’s handsome J Class, Southern Pacific’s Golden States, and New York Central’s Niagaras just to name a few (there were many others).

While this steam locomotive design is best remembered as the Northern not every railroad thought such a name was appropriate for their models, such as those mentioned above.

Santa Fe 4-8-4 #3776 goes for a spin on the turntable at Redondo Junction (Los Angeles) during the 1950's. Edwin Olsen photo. Author's collection.

Today, many Northern Types survive and several still remain in operation with the most famous including:

  • Norfolk & Western #611

  • Union Pacific #844 (the last steam locomotive ever purchased by the UP and the only steam locomotive to never be retired by a Class I railroad)

  • Milwaukee Road #261
  • Southern Pacific #4449

  • Spokane, Portland & Seattle #700

  • Chesapeake & Ohio #614 (needs a complete overhaul but operated as recently as the 1990's)

  •  Santa Fe #3751

Of all the large steamers that still remain in operation the Northerns are the most prolific so you have ample opportunities to see these beautiful ladies in action from coast to coast! 

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Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!