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C&O's 4-6-4 "Hudson" Locomotives (Class L)

Last revised: February 1, 2024

By: Adam Burns

The Chesapeake & Ohio was a big proponent of steam power due largely to the significant amount of coal it handled from southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky coal fields along its network.

If given the choice Chessie would have remained an all-steam road and continued to invest in the technology until the late 1940s, culminating with its M-1 steam turbines of 1947.

The railroad utilized many late-era, "Super Power" designs in both passenger and freight assignments, which included the popular 4-6-4 arrangement. 

The first examples entered service during the early 1940s and the last later that decade; some were even rebuilt from older 4-6-2s.  All were retired by during the mid-1950s and today one survives, streamlined #490, originally built for the never-launched "Chessie." 


1875iu191237998627.jpgChesapeake & Ohio 4-6-4 #490 (L-1) receives attention at the heavy repair shops in Huntington, West Virginia during 1947. Photo colorized by Patty Allison.


The C&O is not as well-remembered for its late-era passenger services.  The company largely did not invest in lightweight equipment during the streamliner era.  

However, that changed under Robert Young who became president in 1942. He believed strongly in this business with intentions of seriously upgrading the railroad's passenger department after World War II.

Believing the C&O should take full advantage of the robust travel business he quickly placed orders for new equipment from the Budd Company and Pullman-Standard.  Its most prominent train was to be called The Chessie, led by the aforementioned steam turbines and even a small group of streamlined 4-6-4s (of which #490 is pictured above).


The C&O's passenger service stars in the steam era included its large fleet of Class F 4-6-2s, examples of which date back to the early 20th century.  These Pacifics roamed the system far and wide leading its most well-known trains; their high drivers offered ample speed while the locomotives were powerful enough to handle the heaviest grades.  

The most famous were the Class F-19 heavy Pacifics introduced during the mid-1920s.  During the late steam-era the C&O sought more powerful types such as 4-8-2s and 4-6-4s, and culiminating with its fine fleet of 4-8-4 Greenbriers.


Interestingly, the C&O's first order of Hudsons, a batch of eight acquired from Baldwin in 1941-1942 (#300-307), were actually delivered a few years after its first 4-8-4 Greenbriers.

According to Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s book, "Chesapeake & Ohio Passenger Service: 1847-1971," the Class L-2's were the most powerful and heaviest Hudsons ever built with tractive effort ratings above 50,000 pounds and weighing 631,000 pounds (engine and tender). They could also cruise at high speed with their large, 78-inch drivers!

Given the time period in which they were manufactured the Hudsons utilized a number of contemporary features such as roller bearings on all axles.  In addition, #300, was equipped with roller bearings on its side and main rods.


In 1948 the C&O went back to Baldwin for five more, numbered 310-314 and sub-classed L-2-a.  These engines were the last passenger service steam locomotives ever built (by a manufacturer) for an American railroad.  While this distinction seems noteworthy it's not terribly surprising given the C&O's affinity to steam.  

Chessie - along with neighbor Norfolk & Western - remained Class 1 holdouts of steam into the 1950s when both ran into an unexpected problem.  As the diesel market took hold the auxiliary steam market faded away. 

As a result, it became increasingly difficult, and expensive, to maintain traditional side rod steam locomotives and eventually forced both to make the switch.

As Mr. Dixon notes in his book the Hudsons were often assigned west of Hinton, as far as Cincinnati and Detroit, where they powered such trains as the:

  • Sportsman (Washington/Newport News - Cincinnati/Detroit)
  • Fast Flying Virginian/F.F.V. (Washington/Newport News - Cincinnati/Louisville)
  • George Washington (Washington/Newport News - Cincinnati/Louisville)

The C&O's most interesting class of Hudsons included a group of streamlined examples intended to power its new streamliner, The Chessie.  In 1947 the railroad took steps to rebuild its five, widely-regarded Class F-19's into 4-6-4s for this purpose.

This train was the brainchild of new C&O president Robert R. Young who believed the railroad should have a robust and expansive passenger department.  The Chessie was lauded as the most luxurious all-coach train ever launched and was designed to be all-steam powered.  To do this, streamlined locomotives would also be needed.  

The train's primary power was a trio of radical new, streamlined steam turbines listed as Class M-1.  The new Hudsons were given Class L-1 and numbered 490-494.  While regarded as overhauled F-19's, noted C&O historian Karen Parker points out that in reality the L-1's were virtually new utilizing only the fireboxes from the older locomotives.  

In some respects these Hudsons were even more advanced than the L-2's with roller bearings on all axles and rods although they featured slightly smaller drivers (74 inches) and less tractive effort. Their streamlining was beautifully carried out and somewhat resembled the New York Central's legendary Class J-3a's, styled by Henry Dreyfuss, which powered the 20th Century Limited.  

Retirement and Preservation

The L-1's were adorned in fluted, stainless-steel skirting with a forward angled nose.  This shrouding gave the engines the appearance of moving even when standing still.

The nose, and preceding boiler jacket were both painted what the C&O termed "Federal Yellow," ending as a stripe under the cab and along the trailing tender.  

Finally, narrow, stainless-steel shrouding sat above the boiler running from the cab and tapering away at the nose to provide a clean roofline.  Because of their yellow paint the locomotives were referred to as "Yellowbellies" by C&O crews. 

Ultimately, The Chessie was never launched due to sagging postwar ridership and equipment delays from Pullman. However, the L-1's were not discarded and spent a few years in service before the first pair was retired in April, 1953.

The remainder were subsequently sidelined 1955.  While no L-2's were preserved, thanks to the C&O's efforts, one L-1 was saved.  Today, #490 is on display at the B&O Railroad Museum.


  • Dixon, Thomas W. Chesapeake And Ohio Railway:  A Concise History And Fact Book.  Clifton Forge:  Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, 2012.
  • Dixon, Thomas W. Chesapeake & Ohio Passenger Service:  1847-1971.  Clifton Forge:  Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, 2013.
  • Morrison, Tom. American Steam Locomotive In The Twentieth Century. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019.
  • Simpson, Walter. Steam Locomotive Energy Story, The.  New York: American University Presses, 2021.


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

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

It is quite staggering and a must visit!