An ancient Mollie at full gallop. In the last days of steam operation on the Norfolk & Western's Abingdon Branch, a fellow named Joe McNew was the regular Engineer on the daily run to West Jefferson and back. The old man was known as a hard-driver, perhaps the most experienced hogger there was at getting every ounce of performance out of the ancient Mollies that were used on the line. In this scene, having just left Green Cove with Train 202 running nearly an hour late, old Joe has the 382 literally flying as he tries to shave a few minutes off his projected arrival time at Creek Junction.
The Strasburg Railroad Charter which produced the above image was organized by Lerro Productions of Glenolden, PA and was the 3rd in a series which attempted to re-create scenes of one of the last lines in the country to operate regular steam on mixed train service. Norfolk & Western's Abingdon Branch was a 55-mile stretch that ran from Abingdon, VA to West Jefferson, NC. Just before the end of steam operations in the mid-1950s, the line ran one round trip per day, 6 days a week, using a small fleet of ancient Baldwin 4-8-0, M-Class, 12-Wheelers, often referred to as "Mollies." A typical consist was half a dozen freight cars, a baggage express and a coach. Top speed was about 25 miles per hour, but there were plenty of places where it ran a whole lot slower. They didn't call it the "Virginia Creeper" without good reason. The train often ran hours late. The line was made famous when Photographer O. Winston Link spent some time there in the mid-50s, documenting what was literally the last bastion of regular steam on a major railroad in the US.
Norfolk & Western Locomotive #475 at Pennsylvania's Strasburg Rail Road is the last remaining N&W M-Class that is still operational, so it was natural that Lerro Productions would come here for the re-creation. Of the small collection of Abingdon Branch Mollies, #382 was selected for the re-creation, primarily because it had the same high headlight mount as currently exists on 475. Other Abingdon Branch engines such as 396 and 429 all had center-mounted headlights. Among the other changes made to the 475 for this re-creation were:, replacement of cab numbers, lighted number boards and front number plate. In addition, a false spark arrestor and modified pilot were added. About the only major detail that could not be re-created was the tender. The N&W Mollies all had large, 6-axle tenders. Unfortunately, the 475 does not have its original tender, so this is the most glaring detail that is not correct. Still, take a look at some of Winston Links photos from his book, "The Last Steam Railroad in America." What you see here is a darn fine representation of the power on the Abingdon Branch.