New York, Susquehanna & Western no. 142 leads an excursion train through Denville Jct., New Jersey, under the wires of the former Lackawanna during the summer of 2002. This was the author's introduction to main line steam excursions in the east. Sadly, it was only a brief introduction.
A brief encounter with Susquehanna steam
By Otto M. Vondrak/photos by the author
Regular main line steam excursions were rare in my neck of the woods. Conrail was the big player in the Northeast, and they turned a cold shoulder to steam ever since an excursion over Horseshoe Curve in 1977 stalled and caused major operational headaches for everyone involved. Norfolk Southern ran a popular series of steam excursions for many years, but the closest they ever came to my area was a rare appearance in Buffalo, more than 400 miles away. What's more, NS dropped the fires on their steam program in 1994, while I was still in high school and without the means to pursue any serious railfanning.
Steam found an unlikely ally in NJ Transit, a public agency charged with operating the state's system of bus and commuter rail services. Ross Rowland sponsored a stunning series of high-profile excursions using the refurbished Chesapeake & Ohio 614 over the old Erie Railroad main line between Hoboken and Port Jervis. In a cruel twist of fate, all of these excursions operated in a narrow window of time while I was away at college. Yes, main line steam seemed like a faraway fantasy, as Nickel Plate 765, Pere Marquette 1225, and Milwaukee Road 261 tore up and down Midwestern corridors; Union Pacific 3985, Santa Fe 3751, and the Southern Pacific 4449 continued to put on a grand show in the West.
I returned home to the New York City area in 2002 and tried to get up to speed on all that I had missed while I was gone. There was a new kid in town, over on that maverick short line railroad Susquehanna. The saga of Susquehanna's steam program was a strange one, to be sure. One of three locomotives built new in 1989 by Tangshan Locomotive Works in China and destined for excursion service in America, the Susquehanna's planned No. 141 sank to the bottom of the ocean when the ship carrying it was sunk in a storm. With insurance money in hand, the Susquehanna purchased the Valley Railroad's Mikado and christened it their No. 142 in 1992.
We captured NYSW 142 on a slow backing move staging for its next run over NJ Transit's ex-Jersey Central main line during the summer of 2002. The unusual red rocks drew us to this location near Bridgewater, New Jersey.
Once again, steam had found a welcome home on NJ Transit, thanks in part to the strong working relationship enjoyed by Susquehanna's chairman Walter Rich. The summer of 2002 was a whirlwind of activity for me as I returned home to find a number of main line excursions operating not far from home! Thanks to annual events like Lincoln Park Railroad Days and Dunellen Railroad Days, I would finally get a chance to see an actual operating steam locomotive outside of a museum!
Joined by my friend Josh Weis, those chases through the Garden State are all a blur to me now. I wasn't as good about keeping notes in those days, so I've had a hard time trying to tell the trips apart. Neither of us had much experience chasing trains in this area, so finding photo locations were catch-as-catch-can. Sometimes we set up with other photographers, sometimes we went out on our own. That was part of the adventure. While we weren't far from home, it certainly felt like a foreign experience shooting steam on NJ Transit lines.
The first weekend of trips was hosted on the old Lackawanna lines. I remember how nervous I felt standing trackside with camera in hand as we waited. Soon 142's whistle announced its arrival, and the excursion train came into view. Right behind the tender was Walter Rich's personal heavyweight business car Otto Kuhler, followed by a number of ex-Long Island commuter coaches, a dome car(yes, a DOME), and tailed by a pair of EMD E9's (the railroad's latest acquisition for excursion service). But the main attraction was the 142 itself, bravely putting it all on the line at the head end of this elegant maroon train. The sounds of camera shutters firing nearly overpowered the staccato exhaust of the steam engine itself.
My brief exposure to steam drew to a close at the classic ex-CNJ depot at Bound Brook, New Jersey. After all passengers had disembarked, No. 142 rolled into the sunset, marking the end of another great day of chasing steam.
Another weekend we were out for a repeat performance along the former Jersey Central main line. I still couldn't shake the fact that I was chasing a real steam train across New Jersey. After a day of chasing hither and yon, we caught up with the train as passengers disembarked at Bound Brook. It was nearing sunset, and the entire train was bathed in a warm, golden light. Soon there were two whistle blasts as the train literally headed off towards the sunset. Seemed like an appropriate way to end my introduction to main line steam.
Unfortunately, my introduction was a brief one. With Susquehanna coming under tighter control of both CSX and Norfolk Southern following the passing of Walter Rich in 2007, all excursions came to an end. Preparations had begun years earlier, with the railroad selling the 142 to the New York, Susquehanna & Western Historical & Technical Society in 2004. The Mikado now earns its keep running regular excursions on the Bel-Del Railroad, far removed from the main lines up north. It was a great show while it lasted... Who knows what twists of fate await eastern steam in the future?