The 2-8-4 wheel arrangement was a popular design after it first debuted in the 1920s on the Boston & Albany with several railroads employing at least one example in regular service over the next two decades. The Chesapeake & Ohio was late to adopt the style although its versions went on to become one of the most powerful ever built. Since the railroad was located nowhere near the Berkshire Mountains of New England it believed naming its 2-8-4s as such was irrelevant. As a result it chose a much more appropriate term for its region of operation, "Kanawhas." Since the locomotives were manufactured during the World War II era most saw barely a decade of service before retirement. However, thanks to the C&O's efforts of preserving its steam designs a dozen still survive today.
During the traffic blitzkreig of World War II the C&O was in need of new power to keep up with demand and began looking at the 2-8-4 arrangement to fulfill this need. The design had been around since 1925, ushering in what became known as "Super Power" steam locomotives. Interestingly, despite the inherent advantages the new 2-8-4 offered in terms of power and speed it was many years until the C&O adopted the design, and the last in the Van Sweringen empire. The brothers owned several railroads during the early 20th century which included the C&O, Pere Marquette, Nickel Plate Road, and Erie. According to Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s book, "Chesapeake & Ohio K-4 Class 2-8-4 Steam Locomotives," one reason the C&O may have been late to utilize the design was a large order of superbly built 2-8-2 Mikados it had purchased in the mid-1920s (Class K-2 and K-3/a).
The first use of 2-8-4s on a Van Sweringen property was the Erie's Class S in September of 1927 and during the next decade all of their railroads, except the C&O (which came under their control in 1923), operated what were known as "Van Sweringen Berkshires." The brothers created the Advisory Mechanical Committee, or AMC, in 1929 as a means of standardizing locomotive designs across its properties and spent the next several years refining the 2-8-4. The C&O's first true Super Power design was the 2-10-4s, listed as Class T-1, it received from Lima in 1930. Via the AMC's 1929 recommendations the locomotives were modeled after Erie's 2-8-4s and, as Mr. Dixon notes in his book, proved incredibly successful in service. The C&O liked them so well they purchased most of their future Super Power locomotives from Lima.
The C&O's first 2-8-4's began arriving in 1943, a batch of fourteen built by the American Locomotive Company (Alco) numbered 2700-2713. The railroad came up with the term "Kanawha" for this class for a number of reasons; first, the Kanawha River was an important tributary in southern West Virginia that its main line followed and was also a subdivision named after this Iroquoian word meaning "water way" or "canoe way." Thanks to their standardization and being virtually identical the K-4's were never subclassed by the C&O as all future batches, purchased from both Lima and Alco, were listed simply as "Class K-4." When the last units entered service in 1947 the railroad had amassed an impressive fleet of 90 examples.
During the final years of steam the C&O was purchasing a wide variety of other powerful designs such as 4-8-4's and mammoth 2-6-6-6 Alleghenies. However, it was the Kanawhas which could typically be seen in regular service; thanks to their 69-inch drivers and starting tractive effort of 69,350 pounds the 2-8-4s powered fast freights along the busy Kanawha Subdivision between Handley, West Virginia and Russell, Kentucky or moved heavy coal drags along one of the many branches in the region. They also occasionally showed up on other areas of the C&O's network. The K-4's became so popular with train crews (which referred to them as "Big Mikes" in reference to the equally popular Mikados previously discussed) and versatile in service the railroad often featured them in promotional materiel and company timetables.
Aside from freight duties the Kanawhas also found themselves working passenger service, thanks in part to their general good looks, with speeds reaching 70 mph. And the K-4's were not just leading typical, unnamed consists; they could be found ahead of the C&O's top trains such as the Sportsman and Fast Flying Virginian. Mr. Dixon's book points out that after October of 1948 their passenger assignments declined with the arrival of new power. During nearly the entirety of their careers the K-4's rarely ventured west or north of Cincinnati, Ohio. Into the 1950s they continued working a variety of assignments, mostly manifest freights or heavy coal movements. Similar to neighbor Norfolk & Western the C&O believed fervently in steam power and was reluctant to make the switch to diesels. While the company recognized the efficiency of the new motive power other factors led to the eventual switch to diesels such as difficulty in finding replacement parts and the general decline of the auxiliary market.
The Kanawhas finished their careers in 1956. However, the C&O understood the importance of saving some of its locomotives for historical posterity and sat aside 13 examples while the rest were scrapped by May of 1961. Today, 12 of these remain preserved (#2701 sat on display in Buffalo, New York but was severely damaged by vandals and later scrapped) and through the 1990s one still operated, #2716, where it was also once used as part of Southern's steam program in the 1980s. It is currently owned by the Kentucky Railroad Museum where there has been on-again/off-again hope of its restoration one day. Additionally, #2789 is under restoration at the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum although there is no real timetable as to when this project may be completed. Many of the Kanawhas currently preserved currently sit on static display outdoors in poor condition. The twelve examples of K-4's still in existence include #2700, #2705, #2707, #2716, #2727, #2732, #2736, #2755, #2756, #2760, #2776, and #2789.