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A Tale of Two Memos:

Charles Lindbergh
 and the Pennsylvania Railroad

by James Alexander Jr.

A version of this was published in Locomotive and Railway Preservation Magazine in January 1994 under the title of Two Memos and Two Machines: Lindbergh and the Pennsylvania Railroad, and in Milepost, the Journal of the Friends of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Locomotive & Railway Preservation Magazine cover.
Fixing the water scoop at Wilmington
 while the competition flies ahead

Archaeologists often work from fragments of bone and pottery to develop an understanding of prior eras. Preservation of railroad history sometimes also involves starting with fragments—physical or written—and weaving them into a broader understanding. Jim Alexander unexpectedly became a railroad archaeologist while digging for information on track pans in the Pennsylvania Railroad Collection in the archives of the Hagley Museum Library in Wilmington, Delaware, when he came upon a faded carbon copy of a 1927 Pennsylvania Railroad memorandum about a special train that ran that year.

Its story had been told before, but Alexander also uncovered another memo about an old locomotive, written twenty-three years later. The common threads in the two memos were famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh and the Pennsylvania Railroad. From these two relics, he fleshed out a story of the initial reaction of railroads to the advent of aviation and of Lindbergh’s unusual relationship with the Pennsylvania Railroad.

From The Memos:

1927:  A special train for the International News Reel Corporation was operated from Washington, June 11, 1927, for the transportation of motion picture films of the reception of Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh at Washington ...
1950:  E6s No. 460, out of service awaiting Class 3 repairs since April 2 this year, is the locomotive that hauled to New York the motion pictures of the Lindberg (sic) Reception in Washington after his Trans-Atlantic Flight.

Do not include this locomotive in any list of locomotives to be scrapped or sold. When it is retired from active service, arrange to have it retained as a relic for historical and exhibition purposes.

Lost in the fog and out of fuel, Charles Augustus Lindbergh parachuted from his plane, becoming the first American pilot to have made four emergency jumps. The next day, September 16, 1926, while waiting for a replacement plane, he went to the movies in downtown Chicago to see What Price Glory. His reaction to the flickering images on the big screen changed history and profoundly affected America’s railroads.

 It was the newsreel that sparked his resolve, showing an early biplane that would be competing for a $25,000 prize for the first nonstop airplane flight between New York and France.  The result of Lindbergh's movie going was not only his spectacular landing in Paris on May 21, 1927, but yet another newsreel that was to lead to a new record in railroading.

Pennsylvania Railroad Memorandum, Philadelphia, June 13, 1927, from D. M. Sheaffer, Chief of Passenger Transportation, to M. W. Clement, Vice President, Operations:

A special train for the International News Reel Corporation was operated from Washington, June 11, 1927, for the transportation of motion picture films of the reception to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh at Washington....

Crew and Locomotive of the Linbdbergh Special, 1927, reenacted a day later.Waiting with a full head of steam on track eight at Washington’s Union Station, PRR Atlantic No. 460 was coupled to B-60-B baggage car No. 7874 and P-70 passenger coach No. 3301. Extra 460 East was ready to go!

In the quest to be the first to bring the historic film of the Lindbergh ceremonies to New York City’s Broadway theaters, other newsreel companies had chartered planes to fly film northward. But the International News Reel Corporation was determined to transport its film by train, as it had successfully done after President Coolidge’s inauguration two years earlier.

Aboard the passenger car were officials of the three PRR divisions the train would cross. The locomotive, built in 1914, was the line’s newest E6. It had been chosen for the run at the direction of Pennsy General Manager E. W. Smith, who had specified a recently overhauled locomotive that had been operated for a week or two to get any kinks out of it. Number 460, having come out of refurbishing at the Wilmington shops 10 days earlier, filled the bill.

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The couriers rushed into the station, the heavy steel cans of film were hoisted into the baggage car, and the race was on.  As David P. Morgan later wrote, when the Atlantic’s throttle was opened in response to the highball, “Two pairs of 80-inch drivers bit gritty rail.” Smith had given the hand-picked crew permission to run the train as fast as they wanted, placing full confidence in their experience. Freight traffic on the main line, much of it four-tracked, had been cleared, and the Lindbergh Special had priority over all other passenger trains.

Able to make the entire trip on one load of coal, No. 460 was to rely on its tender’s water scoop to avoid any stops for water to feed the boiler. Alas, the first time the scoop was lowered, it apparently was damaged by the force of hitting the water in the track pan at such high speed, and an unscheduled three-minute stop near Wilmington was needed to repair it and take on water the conventional way, from a tank. Minutes earlier, one of the planes had flown overhead, keeping pace with the speeding train for a while, then mockingly wagging its wings and flying ahead.

Flying one of the planes was famed stunt pilot “Casey” Jones. Upon reaching the film-developing plant on Long Island, he spotted the flares that had been lit, circled around, and parachuted the film onto a waiting canvas below. But had the plane beat the train?

As Pennsy’s Lindbergh Special sped north, it reached peak speeds of 115 miles per hour. Atlantics were known as speedy locomotives, and one of the engineers later said that the throttle had not been fully opened. Arriving at Manhattan Transfer station in North Jersey, No. 460 detached, leaving the two cars to be pulled by DD-1 electric locomotive No. 16 through the tunnel under the Hudson River into Penn Station. There, the truth became evident when the baggage-car doors were opened to reveal that the newsreel company had set up a darkroom on board, staffed with technicians and editors, just as it had done two years earlier.

The film crew agreed with the enginemen that at its top speed, the train had ridden as smoothly as at forty miles per hour, and a good thing it was. The films—developed, edited, and copied on board—were on theater screens within fifteen minutes, beating those that came by plane by a good hour, notwithstanding the acrobatics of Casey Jones. Thus did No. 460 earn its reputation as the locomotive that beat the plane, forever after being known as the “Lindbergh Engine.”

The spirited locomotive had in fact set a number of records, overall and on various stretches. The entire trip of 224.6 miles to Penn Station at an average speed of seventy-two miles per hour beat the previous record of the Coolidge inauguration newsreel run by more than 32 minutes. The three-hour, seven-minute run stood in contrast with the top passenger-train time on that route of five hours. The Special’s average speed of 74 miles per hour over the 216 miles of steam territory was the world’s record for such a distance and set a record for the Washington-to-Manhattan Transfer distance that was never beaten while steam ran on that busy corridor.

Spirit of St. Louis train heading west.
Spirit of St. Louis, heading west.

The story of this accomplishment made the New York Times the next day but was largely lost among the pages of other stories of the Washington extravaganza. But the PRR did not limit its efforts to capitalize on the exuberance over Lindbergh’s accomplishment. It renamed its best trains between New York and Lindbergh’s adopted home town of St. Louis (previously the St. Louisan westbound and the New Yorker eastbound) The Spirit of St. Louis and named the train’s observation car the Colonel Lindbergh.

The railroad had to settle for Lindbergh’s mother christening the train, since Lindbergh himself was overwhelmed with such requests. When the day came, however, the crowds were so great that New York City officials assigned five hundred police officers to get her to the train.  Apparently overwhelmed, she sat inside the observation car, her back to the crowd, and left it to a friend to pull aside the green velvet covering the illuminated emblem at the rear of the car. As the train slowly pulled away from the Pennsylvania Station platform, Mrs. Lindbergh appeared in the door for a brief wave.

The railroads also asserted their presence through a resolution of the Association of Railway Executives, who were in conference at Atlantic City that May. The association declared its acclaim for Lindbergh’s accomplishment and offered him “such transportation facilities as may best suit your plans and convenience when you return to your home.” Arrangements were made with the Interstate Commerce Commission whereby any railroad that Lindbergh chose to ride home on could charge him a nominal tariff of one dollar, an offer similar to that made previously to Queen Marie of Romania.

Lindbergh, however, decided to fly ....
 

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