You first hear the whistle, a throaty bellow like a tornado heard through a long pipe, and over the tops of trees, you see the trail of ash-grey smoke dissipating into the air. Soon the sheer black locomotive churns into view along the track with “765” and “Nickel Plate Road” emblazoned in gold, hand-painted lettering along its side. This representative figure of a by-gone era turns heads as it chugs along Chicagoland tracks, and it’s no wonder. Catching this bellowing 100-foot-long, 404-ton steel powerhouse rolling down the rails is enough to captivate railfans and unsuspecting commuters alike.
As the locomotive prepares to return to Metra’s Rock Island Line on Sept. 15 and 16, visitors and residents in the Chicagoland region plan for an experience unlike any other. Some may choose to post along the route with a camera in hand, others will ride aboard one of the 15 private luxury railcars it pulls behind. In either case, the return of Nickel Plate 765 provides the opportunity to travel back in time to the golden age of railroading.
Nickel Plate 765, a solid steel steam locomotive currently owned and maintained by Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, was built in 1944 and it proved to be a dynamo in the steam era. This Berkshire-type locomotive boasted an impressive 4500 horsepower thanks to modifications that William E. Woodard, an engineer at Lima Locomotive Works, made to the firebox size (as a comparison, Metra’s F40PH locomotives operate at 3,200 horsepower and MP36 locomotives operate at 3,600 horsepower). That adjustment necessitated an entirely new wheel arrangement, making the Berkshire a 2-8-4 construction rather than a 2-8-2 like the Mikado design it was derived from.
The Berkshire was an instant success and quickly became the standard for speed and efficiency in steam locomotive design. Nickel Plate Road, a lesser-known freight railroad founded in 1881, placed itself on the map after purchasing their first 15 Berkshires in 1934. According to the Nickel Plate Road Historical & Technical Society, “the 1940’s found Nickel Plate setting record after record with the Berkshires.” It was during this era of progress that Nickel Plate Road acquired Locomotive 765, known also by the abbreviation NKP765.
Though the locomotive is an icon to another era, it was not immune to adjusting to the requirements of railroads today. Metra Roadway Engineer Tim Pitzen took time off of work to help bring NKP765 into Chicago for the Joliet Rocket excursion in 2017. Though the experience was unlike any he had had before, it turned out to be a nearly 21-hour day; this is in addition to the months of planning that occurred in anticipation of the train’s arrival.
Beyond making sure Metra’s infrastructure could support such a machine, there were countless hours spent planning the moves, arranging necessary equipment, troubleshooting complications, and executing trial runs leading up to the two-day event.
“One of the biggest issues we had was making sure we could get coal and water to it,” Pitzen said. This required the use of a crane and storage area for the massive amounts of fuel. “Beyond that, there’s just a lot of coordination that goes on between transportation, mechanical, and engineering.”
This year marks the second consecutive year the locomotive has visited Chicago. A previous attempt in 1985 fell through, but the planning notes made by Jerry Pitzen, Tim Pitzen’s father and fourth-generation railroader, remain as a testament to the difficulties of coordinating the many parts of such an excursion. The numbered list handwritten on yellow notebook paper provides suggestions for the arrival of the locomotive and for running the entire train set: what equipment is needed to get coal into the tender, where to wash the equipment, which bridges and clearances need to be checked and what the plan would be for special moves to speed up operations.
Regardless of the efforts expended on both Metra’s side and that of Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, bringing a time capsule like the NKP765 back to the heart of America’s railroad capital is well worth it. On both sides of the operation are countless volunteers who are there for the love of the railroad tradition.
If you’re interested in learning more about The Joliet Rocket excursion and Nickel Plate 765, click here.