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Century old techniques restore century old Climax #9

Photo by Suzanne Stewart
It may not look like much, but the Climax #9 steam locomotive is looking better than ever and on its way back to the tracks at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. The machinists at the Cass Shop have been working diligently to help the engine rise from the ashes like a phoenix. Plans are to have the engine completely restored and ready to celebrate its 100th birthday in November.

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Behind the scenes at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, there is a buzz of activity that is usually not seen by visitors who travel there to ride the train. 

That buzz takes place in the Cass Shop, where machinists use century-old techniques to bring the locomotives back to working order. The most recent project is breathing new life into the Climax #9, which was built in 1919.

It all began in 2005 when the Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Association decided to restore the damaged locomotive. The non-profit did wonders on the project and when Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad took control of the train operations at Cass, the project was passed into the hands of the machinists in the Cass Shop.

“We started in 2017 working on the Climax,” DGVR director or operations Mark Smith said. “It’s to save a piece of history. There were about twelve hundred of them built and, of those, there are only about eighteen left intact in the world. There are only about five of them – whenever this one comes online – that will be in running condition. The rest are static displays.”

The #9 Engine is one of two Climaxes in the DGVR and Cass fleet.  The fleet also includes Shays and Heislers.

“Cass, West Virginia, will be the only place that you will potentially be able to see two Climaxes running together,” Smith said. “There were three popular gear-driven steam locomotives. That’s Shay, which is the most prolific; the Heisler; and the Climax. The easiest way to explain it is that Shay, Heisler and Climax are Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet. Each company seemed to have their own particular choice of locomotive.”

Smith and machinist Robert “Otis” Lipscomb agree that the Shay was the most popular of engines because it was easier to perform maintenance on, while the Climax was a more affordable option for businesses using steam locomotives.

“They had one Climax, and it was at Spruce,” Lipscomb said, referencing the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company. “I’m not sure it ever came down here. It was – I think – a little two truckers, like the #3. I think they used it as a switcher up there. They probably got it really cheap somewhere, but everything here was Shay. That’s what they wanted. The Climax was kind of the cheaper version for the smaller outfits.
“They were like a Model T – affordable,” he added.

The Climax #9 was not used during the logging boom in Cass, but it does have a history with the railroad. The engine was at Cass in the 1970s and suffered severe damage in a fire.

“It was destroyed in the shop fire in ’73,” Lipscomb said. “It was one they couldn’t get out during the fire, and it got so hot, the bell melted off of it. It was completely destroyed. About the only thing left was the frame and the trucks under it. Everything else was pretty much destroyed by the heat.”

Photo by Suzanne Stewart
Through the process of restoring Climax #9, the Cass machinists would make notes with grease pencils on the locomotive. The interior of the smoke box still have faint numbers on it that will be removed once the project is complete.

Despite the loss, the Climax has been through a vigorous face lift and is nearing its return to the railroad tracks. When restoring a steam locomotive, it’s impossible to go out and purchase new equipment. It all has to be made in the shop.
The machinists are able to recreate equipment without the help of computerized machinery.

“Most of the machines here that we use in the shop are only about twenty or thirty years newer than the Climax,” Smith said. “We still have old school machinery and fortunately, we have old school machinists who operate the machines. There’s nothing really computerized. It’s all slide rule and drawings.”

“We try to keep them as true to the design as we can,” Lipscomb added. “We work with a couple foundries where we can have rough castings made and then we machine out the gears and stuff.”

Smith said he is unsure where the Climax will be used once it’s finished, but he is certain it will join the fleet soon.
“I made a promise to the president of our company, John Smith, that it would fire by its 100th birthday, which is November of 2019,” Smith said. “We’re actually hoping it will be well before that.”

After more than a decade of work – between the MSRLHA and Cass – the Climax will be leaving the shop and making room for other locomotives in need of restoration.

In fact, there’s already one in the queue.

“The 604, or Buffalo Creek and Gauley #4,” Smith said. “It’s listed on several YouTube videos as Slobberface #4. Something to do with the way that the front of it was built that it actually drooled the whole time.”

The Slobberface was at the North Carolina Transportation Museum when a DGVR stockholder negotiated a deal to send the locomotive to Cass. The museum did some work on the boiler and the frame, but there is still work to do before it’s ready to join the fleet.

“They did not complete the boiler, so that will be our task,” Smith said. “We have started on a budget to see where we can fund this, because there is no state money or grant money available to make these projects happen. That’s the downfall of being a private company in a restoration business. All of the money that comes in to this restoration project is through ticket sales.”

Smith said the plan is to have the Slobberface run the newest route, which connects Cass to Durbin, known as the Greenbrier Line. The project to connect the two railroads is nearing completion and, if all goes well, the run will begin in spring 2020.

“The track is in place, largely in credit to our track department that has worked in all kinds of weather to make it happen,” Smith said. “Fortunately we’ve had some mild winters the past two years, so they’ve been able to actually do some outside work and keep things going on that Greenbrier Line.”

Steam locomotives may no longer be manufactured, but there is still hope for the ones in operation – that hope can be found within the walls of the Cass Shop.

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