That ominous presence is the Canadian National Railway’s 6213 steam locomotive. In use with the railway from 1942 to 1959, it covered over a million miles pulling passengers and freight across the continent. It represents the pinnacle of steam locomotive design — the Northern type locomotive.
With the explosion in demand for rail travel in the 1920s, railroads began searching for a locomotive that could carry more, carry it further, and carry it faster. At the time, the big locomotives were limited to about 20 cars. In 1927, the American Locomotive Company modified a locomotive with a 4-8-2 arrangement — a truck with 4 lead wheels, 8 drive wheels, and a truck with 2 trailing wheels — into a 4-8-4 configuration with a larger firebox. The 4 lead, or “pony”, and 8 drive wheel configuration had already proven to be an efficient means of guiding and driving the locomotive. Extending the trailing truck to accommodate a larger firebox was the next evolution, and proved to be the ultimate in steam locomotive design.
That locomotive that American Locomotive Company modified was for the Northern Pacific railroad. The configuration was dubbed the “Northern Pacific” and shortened to Northern. Over the next three decades, more than 1,126 Northern-type locomotives were built and operated by 36 different railroads. Many of the southern and other regional US railroads took exception to the “Northern” designation and renamed them everything from the “Dixies” to the “Poconos”. In Canada, they were known as “Confederations” and designated as U-2 and U-4 class locomotives.
The Northerns were limited only by the amount of tractive force they could transmit to the rails. By the time the railroads had found ways around this limitation, diesel-electric locomotives were coming out that could produce much more tractive force with about the same overall weight and more efficiently. With freight being the most profitable business for the railroads, they couldn’t get rid of their Northerns fast enough. By the early 1960s, the Northerns and all other main-line steam locomotives were put out to pasture, effectively ending the Age of Steam.
[Image Credit: engineerd™]