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C&O 2-8-4 "Kanawha" Locomotives

Last revised: February 1, 2024

By: Adam Burns

The 2-8-4 was a popular wheel arrangement after it first debuted in the 1920s on the Boston & Albany.  The greater power and tractive effort it offered saw several railroads employ at least one example in regular service.

The Chesapeake & Ohio was late to adopt the design although its version went became one of the most powerful ever built.  Since the railroad was located nowhere near New England's Berkshire Mountains it believed naming its 2-8-4s as Berkshires was irrelevant.  

As a result it chose a much more appropriate term for their region of operation, "Kanawhas."  Since the locomotives were manufactured during - or just after - World War II most saw barely a decade of service before retirement. However, thanks to the C&O's efforts a dozen were saved for posterity.

In addition, one is under restoration; #2716.  During the 1990s this locomotive was operational and is once again undergoing overhaul by the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation of Ravenna, Kentucky.  This young organization has done a fantastic job preserving Appalachian rail history and is based at the former Louisville & Nashville engine shop located there, donated by CSX Transportation.


02394237427346216342365326893987.jpgChesapeake & Ohio 2-8-4 "Kanawha" #2770 leads an eastbound freight through the west end of the yard at Handley, West Virginia, circa 1955. Bill Price photo. American-Rails.com collection.

Advisory Mechanical Committee

During the traffic blitzkrieg 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 when Lima unveiled the 2-8-4 "Super Power" steam locomotive.  This term, coined by the builder, featured locomotives with larger fireboxes for greater combustion (thus, generating more steam) and modern components such as roller-bearings and feed-water heaters to reduce maintenance.

Interestingly, despite the inherent advantages the 2-8-4 offered it was many years before Chessie adopted the design, and the last in the Van Sweringen empire to do so.  

The brothers owned several railroads at that time 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 for the C&O's hesitation was likely due to a large order of superbly built 2-8-2s it had recently purchased in the mid-1920s (Class K-2 and K-3/a).

The first use of a 2-8-4 on a Van Sweringen property was the Erie's S class.  The first examples had arrived in September, 1927 and the railroad would eventually roster 105 of these engines by 1929.  Over the next decade all of the Van Sweringen railroads, except the C&O, 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 forty 2-10-4s it received from Lima in 1930.  

Via the AMC's 1929 recommendations these locomotives were modeled after Erie's 2-8-4s and, as Mr. Dixon notes, proved incredibly successful in service.  The C&O liked them so well they purchased most of their future Super Power locomotives from Lima.

Chesapeake & Ohio 2-8-4 #2716, masquerading in Southern Railway colors, leads an excursion southbound through Midland, Virginia in July, 1982. The big Kanawha spent a few years hosting trips during Southern's steam program in the early 1980s. American-Rails.com collection.

Class K-4

The C&O's first 2-8-4's finally arrived 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 several reasons: firstly, the Kanawha River was an important tributary that its main line closely followed in southern West Virginia; secondly, it was also a subdivision named after this Iroquoian word meaning "water way" or "canoe way."  When the last units entered service in 1947 the railroad had amassed an impressive fleet of 90 examples.

Chesapeake & Ohio 4-8-4 "Greenbrier" #600 (J-3, named the "Thomas Jefferson") and 2-8-4 "Kanawha" #2740 (K-4) power the eastbound "Sportsman" out of Clifton Forge, Virginia in 1947. Robert Le Massena photo.


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 typically seen in regular service; thanks to their 69-inch drivers and 69,350 pounds of starting tractive effort the 2-8-4s powered fast freights along the busy Kanawha Subdivision between Handley, West Virginia and Russell, Kentucky.  In addition, they were often tasked with handling 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 materials and company timetables.  

Aside from freight duties the Kanawhas found themselves working passenger assignments thanks, in part, to their general good looks and an ability to reach speeds up to 70 mph.  The K-4's were not just leading typical, unnamed consists; they could usually 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 4-8-4s from Lima.  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 drags.   

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 change; most notably the difficulty in finding replacement parts.  As the industry shifted away from steam power, the auxiliary market for components and service also died.

"Chesapeake & Ohio Class K-4 #2765" hustles the New River Train along the ex-C&O main line in southern West Virginia during the fall of 1993. Actually, this is Nickel Plate Road #765 dressed as #2765 for this popular excursion. Dan Robie photo.


The Kanawha's 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 for this purporse; the rest were scrapped by May of 1961.  

Preserved Examples

Today, 12 remain preserved (#2701 sat on display in Buffalo, New York but was severely damaged by vandals and later scrapped) and through the 1990s one remained operational, #2716.  This engine had also once been part of Southern's steam program in the 1980's. 

It is currently owned by the Kentucky Railroad Museum where there has been on-again/off-again hope for its eventual restoration.

Many of the other Kanawha's preserved sit on static display outdoors and in poor condition.  The twelve examples still in existence include #2700, #2705, #2707, #2716, #2727, #2732, #2736, #2755, #2756, #2760, #2776, and #2789.


  • 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.


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!