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C&O's 4-8-4 "Greenbrier" Locomotives (Class J-3/a/b)

Last revised: February 1, 2024

By: Adam Burns

Chesapeake & Ohio's second roster of "Super Power" engines was its fleet of 4-8-4 "Greenbriers."  The first examples arrived from Lima in 1935 and railroad would eventually roster a fleet of twelve. 

The company became quite fond of Lima's "Super Power" designs after acquiring forty 2-10-4s from the builder in 1929/1930.  The C&O was so pleased with their performance many of its other late-era wheel arrangements - like the Greenbriers - were built by the Ohio manufacturer.

Chessie's 4-8-4s were powerful, graceful machines that often found themselves working passenger assignments in mountainous territory thanks to their high drivers and solid tractive effort.  Today, one example from the class is preserved, J-3a #614.  This fine locomotive became famous for leading excursions during the 1980s and 1990s.

It is perhaps best remembered for the ACE 3000 test trials in 1985 when then-Chessie System allowed Ross Rowland, the locomotive's owner, to test the viability of steam as a renewed source of main line power. 

The big Greenbrier successfully lugged several loads of coal along the Chesapeake & Ohio main line between Huntington and Hinton that cold January day but the experiment ultimately failed to produce the desired results.


09928162351y21y58160828970989.jpgChesapeake & Ohio 4-8-4 #614 departs Parsons Yard in Columbus, Ohio with the "Chessie Safety Express" on May 17, 1981. The big 'Greenbrier' was bound for Russell, Kentucky that day. Roger Beighley photo. American-Rails.com collection.


The C&O's first taste of Super Power steam came in 1929 when it placed an order with Lima Locomotive Works for a batch of forty new 2-10-4 "Texas" type locomotives.  

These machines, numbered 3000-3039 and classed T-1, arrived in 1930 and were a culmination of testing carried out by the Advisory Mechanical Committee (AMC).  

The AMC was an oversight body created in 1929 to improve and standardize steam designs across the Van Sweringen-owned properties which - along with the C&O - included the Erie, Nickel Plate Road, Hocking Valley Railway (a later C&O subsidiary) and Pere Marquette.  

The T-1s were essentially enlarged 2-8-4.  They utilized an additional driving axle and were patterned from Erie's Class S models which had first entered service in 1927.   The 2-10-4's often found themselves handling 160-car heavy freights, usually coal, in the C&O's western territory between Russell, Kentucky and Toledo, Ohio.  

The success of these locomotives immediately sold the railroad on the benefits of Super Power technology.  As a result, virtually all of its future purchases were for such designs - and many came from Lima.   

These included its 4-8-4s, all of which were outshopped by the Ohio manufacturer.   By the mid-1930s the C&O was in need of larger, and more powerful designs, to handle passenger assignments on the rugged mountain grades between Charlottesville, Virginia and Hinton, West Virginia. 

Through the AMC the new 4-8-4 was born, based from the earlier success of the 2-10-4s.  The first arrived between December, 1935 and early January, 1936; listed as Class J-3 they were numbered 600-604.


While 4-8-4's are often regarded as "Northerns," a name derived from where the wheel arrangement first saw service on the Northern Pacific in 1926, the C&O chose the moniker "Greenbrier."  

This designation referenced a river, as well as a subdivision of the same name, in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern West Virginia.  It also referred to a state county and the regal Mountain State resort, which remains open to the public today.

In addition, the railroad named individual engines after prominent Virginia statesmen, perhaps because the locomotives would be leading the company's most highly regarded trains such as the George Washington and Sportsman (the naming of units included only the J-3's and first batch of J-3a's).  

The Greenbriers were some of the heaviest and largest 4-8-4's ever built; the original J-3's weighed 477,00 pounds (engine only) while the first batch of J-3a's (#605-606) weighed 506,300 pounds.  The second batch of J-3a's (#610-614) weighed in at 482,200 pounds. 


Class Number Name
J-3600"Thomas Jefferson"
J-3601"Patrick Henry"
J-3602"Benjamin Harrison"
J-3603"James Madison"
J-3604"Edmund Randolph"
J-3a605"Thomas Nelson, Jr."
J-3a606"James Monroe"
J-3a610-614No Name

These weights provided the locomotive's with substantial tractive efforts, above 66,000 pounds, while 74-inch drivers offered high speeds (reaching nearly 80 mph). The ruling grades on the Allegheny and Mountain Subdivisions reached 1.52%.  Nevertheless, the J-3's could pull thirteen heavyweight cars through this territory without difficulty. 

According to Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s book, "Chesapeake & Ohio Railway:   A Concise History And Fact Book," the Greenbriers of 1935 were the first locomotives built by Lima following the Great Depression.  

As late-era designs the J-3's were equipped with several new technologies including trailing truck boosters (increased tractive effort), large tenders capable of handling 22,000 gallons of water and 25 tons of coal, and Timken roller bearings on front and rear trucks (J-3a's).

The C&O's first batch of J-3a's arrived in 1942 and were similar to their earlier counterparts save for the heavier weight as previously mentioned.  Perhaps most surprising is the C&O went back for more after World War II, purchasing a second-batch of J-3a's in 1948.  


It has been argued by some historians the C&O spent far too much time and money on late-era steam technology when it was inevitable diesels were the future in motive power.  As C&O historian Eugene Huddleston notes:

"[It is] simply amazing the expenditure of so much money to produce a 'state of the art' locomotive in the waning days of steam. It seems nothing was sacrificed to equip the new Greenbriers with the latest features and best appliances. Enthusiasm was still the word in 1947, as this writer well recalls from being told about the order for five more Greenbriers from Lima Locomotive Works by locomotive engineer Vince Hiltz."

Nevertheless, Chessie remained a strong proponent of steam well after World War II, even attempting to launch a new streamliner powered by steam turbine technology in the late 1940s, The Chessie. Ultimately, delays in the equipment's arrival and issues with the locomotive shelved the project.


Perhaps it is true the company overspent on late-era steam designs although the C&O was wholly-dedicated to the motive power until the end.  As a major coal shipper, just like the Norfolk & Western, Chessie believed fervently that steam was on par, if not better, than diesel technology for main line service.  

The two railroads may have proven this true if given the time but the secondary steam market for parts and supplies rapidly disappeared as diesels took root making it increasingly expensive to continue operating the motive power.  By the early 1950s new models from Electro-Motive began replacing steam on passenger assignments.  

Incredibly, as Mr. Dixon notes in his book, the J-3a's of 1948 saw just three years of service here before they were bumped into secondary roles.  By 1956, all of the Greenbriers had been retired and only one was saved, #614.  It is currently owned by Ross Rowland but is currently not operational.


  • 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 K-4 Class 2-8-4 Steam Locomotives.  Clifton Forge:  Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, 2013.
  • 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.

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