Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway locomotive 59L, San Diego, CA in 1966. Built by the American Locomotive Works, Schenectady, NY in 1948. Later became Delaware & Hudson Railway 16, Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico DH16.
Curator Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution
the Story of Saving an All-American Icon
There's an incredible story about how our PA-1 locomotive was saved from the scrapper's torch, leading up to MAR's acquisition of Santa Fe 59L in 2011.
At stake for the American rail legacy was having not a single PA left in the U.S. or Canada. At stake was losing both Santa Fe 59L and 62L (now Nickel Plate Road 190), right up until they crossed north of the Mexican-U.S. border together in 2000. And until just last year, when MAR stepped in, PA-1 59L was in real jeopardy.
The Museum of the American Railroad's Bob LaPrelle took note when Bill Withuhn called in 2010 to offer 59L to us, because only two PA-1s exist in the U.S. and because many historians of American transportation and industry see the PA type as one of the most iconic passenger locomotives of the diesel revolution in the 1940s that literally saved American railroads.
Up to 2000, getting ownership of the two PAs transferred to the U.S. was plainly about pulling off a miracle. It took 15 years after 1985, and then another 11 years after that, to ensure the future of our 59L. It was a quarter century of hard work. And the recovery work continues, at MAR.
In the beginning it all hinged on Bill Withuhn, then the Smithsonian's Curator of Technology and Transportation, now Curator Emeritus. For a decade and a half he never gave up on his solo efforts to bring two PAs back home. All his Smithsonian colleagues and upper management thought he was a bit nuts, going after "pieces of junk," they said repeatedly. But as he likes to say, "I guess I was dogged - dogged as a pit bull."
Beginning in 1985, he made a half-dozen trips, some at personal expense, to either the Mexican locomotive shops at Empalme, where the two available PAs were rusting, or to Mexico City and Mexican railroad headquarters, or to both places. And he kept a path warm across town in D.C. to the Embassy of Mexico.
A year before Bill got on the PA trail, the Mexican government authorities had stated publicly that they would not respond to any more PA enquiries from private persons or private museums, from any country. In Bill's first meeting with the Director General (i.e., CEO) of the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico (FNM, successor to the old Nacionales de Mexico), the DG said FNM might agree to work with a U.S. government partner - "might." So Bill wrote letters, even sent a telegram or two, made calls, and proposed ways that the Smithsonian and FNM could partner.
The Director General changed frequently, and Bill met with all five of them through early 1997 - when FNM finally decided that it could "perhaps" deed the 59L and the 62L to the Smithsonian - and then till 1999.
In Empalme, at the big locomotive shops of FNM's "del Pacifico" Region, Bill met in the '80s with the region's CMO, Cesar Romero - who is also a hero in the saga to save 59L and 62L from the torch. Sr. Romero had brought the PAs down to Mexico from the Delaware & Hudson Railway in New York State (where they were D&H engines 16 and 18 after their purchase from the Santa Fe).
After the PAs went out of service in the FNM's Pacific Region, Romero was the one who made sure FNM officers above him didn't know two were squirreled away, in a remote "backyard" spot in the vast Empalme complex. "Mis queridas" (loosely, "my loved ones"), Romero called them.
Bill eventually negotiated three distinct formal agreements that took three years to do, and involved more trips south. The whole thing was blessed in formal ceremonies at the Embassy of Mexico in D.C., and was covered in the Smithsonian's news. The 59L and 62L (to become NKP 190) were, at last, saved. Maybe.
Then two real champions came forward: Doyle McCormack and Bill's friend Pete Claussen, CEO of the Gulf & Ohio Rys shortline system, based in Knoxville. No taxpayer funds could be used to move the two locomotives from Mexico to an as-yet undetermined storage site in the U.S. So, Bill had to find donations.
Claussen, Seth Corwin (longtime fellow engineer with Bill at Steamtown), and McCormack made substantial donations to the cause. McCormack also made an excellent offer: Would the Smithsonian trade one of the PAs for a pair of trucks? Doyle had found three pairs in Smiths Falls, Ontario, at the Canadian Pacific Railroad's parts depot there. (Sometime after Cesar Romero retired in the 1990s, the four PA trucks at Empalme along with the stainless steel siding of the two carbodies had gone "missing.")
Bill got the Smithsonian to do the trade - no small task, involving several successive approvals up the management chain. Then Bill got Canadian Pacific to load and ship the six trucks as a corporate donation, from Smiths Falls to interchange with the BNSF Railway in Washington State, for delivery to McCormack.
In 2000, McCormack told Bill that the BNSF Railway would generously donate the freight to carry the PAs on its lines from Phoenix to Albany, Oregon (then McCormack's base of operations). He offered to go to Empalme to supervise the onloading of 59L and 62L (by now NKP 190 on McCormack's roster) onto two suitable flatcars that Bill then requested from the Union Pacific Railroad to be taken south to the border. UP agreed to send the cars to interchange with a privatized Mexican regional line, Ferromex, and Bill arranged with that company to have them spotted at Empalme for loading. After loading, UP would take the cars from Nogales, Arizona - the interchange with the Mexican carrier - up to Phoenix.
You think arranging an international move involving three railroads is easy? Think again. A routing was secured, but what Bill calls the "international miracle" continued.
Bill got the Smithsonian customs broker on contract to go to Nogales to shepherd the complex, cross-border paperwork and customs duties. By telephone to Mexico, Bill - after repeated calls - finally located the now-retired Cesar Romero and asked if he could pull together a pick-up crew of retired Empalme mechanics to work with McCormack. Romero was thrilled to do so.
McCormack's story of the onloading in 2000 is well known among his friends. Romero had lined up not only a good crew but also the needed crane, crane operator, and related equipment. The only hitch was brief: At one point, the footings and stabilizers of the crane had to be re-set. A "tippy" crane wouldn't do. The loading and safe tie-down took almost three days before the two flatcars and their burden were ready to start their journey up to Nogales and beyond.
Four days later came the most exciting part, by far, of the whole PA repatriation saga.
The Smithsonian customs broker in Nogales called Bill in Washington, D.C. in something of a panic, just after the two flatcars and their loads crossed into the U.S., the culmination of 15 years of hard work & so many efforts by so many.
"Bill," the broker said, "the Union Pacific car inspector here says he's going to send the two cars back to Mexico!" What? Bill knew that McCormack had loaded everything in full compliance, and then some, with the Association of American Railroads' standard Field Manual for the strict tie-down requirements and safety of special loads, so what was wrong?
Bill well recalls the moment. "I said, 'Go back and lie down on the track if you have to. ... Those two cars are not to go back south of the border, under any circumstances.I repeat: Any circumstances.' "
Our man in Nogales got it done. Bill then found out what had set off the UP inspector: He thought the 59L and 62L were each more-or-less complete locomotives, and so they had to weigh a whopping lot more than stated on the waybill and what the flatcars could safely carry.
When Bill pointed out that the loads were just frames and carbodies, the inspector at last agreed to let the cars go north to Phoenix, for interchange with BNSF, which at McCormack's request was donating the shipping from Phoenix to his shop in Albany. McCormack also arranged with the Albany & Eastern shortline for storage space for both NKP 190 and Santa Fe 59L. Storing the 59L was another of McCormack's many contributions to the Smithsonian. Another key contributor was Peter Hansen, the prolific writer for TRAINS magazine, who did countless hours of research for Bill on the PA class on AT&SF.
In 2008, the A&E Railroad gave heads-up notice that the property McCormack used at Albany was to be sold. NKP 190 could be relocated in Oregon, but what about 59L? While Bill searched for a permanent home for the locomotive, he asked Smithsonian lawyers to begin the legal hurdle of clearing its title for a new owner. Add Smithsonian Assistant Counsel Farleigh Earhart to the list of PA champions.
In the middle of that, MAR rode to the rescue. "It was like the cavalry had come galloping over the hill," Bill says. "I couldn't have been happier. From 2000 to 2010, every option I explored to find a permanent home for 59L didn't pan out. But here was Bob LaPrelle on the line. 'We'll take it,' he said."
The MAR Board had approved the acquisition, and Bill says it really was in the nick of time, because otherwise this historic icon was slated to go to a sheriff's sale, and a scrapper was not far away.
BNSF shipped the locomotive and two trucks to Frisco, and now Robert Willis is heading the restoration team. Restoration will be an extensive and slow process, and so patience is required. But in a few years, 59L will have its cab interior put back together, all its stainless-steel bodywork done, its trim restored (such as the gracefully curving rain gutters over and behind the cab windows, a PA hallmark), and emerge in the Santa Fe's ever-famous bright livery of "Scarlet and Silver," as Bill calls it.
To legions of railroad enthusiasts, it's the Warbonnet!