Western Maryland #6, The Last Shay

Western Maryland Railway’s Chaffee Branch was windy and steep…and profitable. To get to the coal mines at the end of the branch the WM needed a special locomotive, something powerful but nimble. And in 1945 that meant a geared locomotive. The Western Maryland chose a Shay. Their Shay #6 would be the last built by the Lima Locomotive Works.

Western Maryland #6 now runs on the Cass Scenic Railroad.
#6 with an excursion on the Cass Scenic Railroad. (Photo: Mobilus via CC by 2.0)

Brief History of Western Maryland #6

It turns out Western Maryland #6, luckily for us, has not had a brief history as she is still steaming today. But she did have a very brief history working for the Western Maryland Railway. Purchased in 1945 to move coal down the Chaffee Branch she was the second largest Shay ever built, weighing in at 270,000 pounds.

Like all geared locomotives, this Shay is powerful and nimble, but not very fast. Top speed is 23 mph. By “geared locomotives” we mean that unlike conventional steam locomotives where a system of rods and linkages transfers the steam energy from the pistons to the wheels, these locomotives use reduction gears.

And you can see the gears, on the outside of the locomotive working furiously to drive the locomotive forward or backward. In the case of a Shay, the boiler is offset to one side to counter-balance the weight of the gears which you can see on the ‘other’ side. #6 is a 3-truck Shay, meaning there are a lot of gears to see!

Western Maryland #6, the last shay produced, prepares for an excursion on the Cass Scenic Railroad.
A good look a the gears side of “Big 6”. (Photo: JP Mueller via CC by 2.0)

For about 5 years #6 made the revenue run for the Western Maryland from Chaffee, West Virginia to the end of the branch at Vindex, Maryland. In 1947 the Vindex Mine, at Vindex, produced 228,000 tons of coal. All hauled down that mountain by Western Maryland Shay #6.

But strip mines had recently opened up near by, taking business away from deep coal mines. In 1949, a bit less than half the tonnage of just two years ago was taken from the deep mine. And in March, 1950 the Vindex Mine closed. 180 men were put out of work. So was Western Maryland #6.

Big 6 steams out of Cass, West Virginia.
Big 6 steams out of Cass. (Photo: Donnie Nunley via CC by 3.0)

New Careers Ahead

After sitting idle for a couple of years, the WM gave #6 an overhaul and a warm send-off – donating her to the B&O Museum in Baltimore. In 1953 she went on static display there, and stayed there for 25 years. She was well taken care of, but had not moved an inch. But she had so recently, before being retired, been running – and received an overhaul. Could she run again?

In 1980, “Big 6” (a nickname she earned on the Cass Scenic Railroad) was part of a trade that sent her to the Cass Scenic in exchange for Cass Shay #1 and a 0-4-0T Porter locomotive going to Baltimore. The Porter had previously worked for the US Army Transportation Corps.

“Big 6” was in such good shape that she would enter excursion service the following year, though her schedule was light for the first several years due to her weight and track conditions on the former logging line. Fortunately several track upgrades at Cass have allowed the heavy #6 to travel nearly the entire line.

Current Status

What a varied career! 5 years pulling coal for the Western Maryland. 25 years as a display at the much respected B&O Museum in Baltimore. And for more than 40 years Big 6 has been pulling passengers on excursions to the top of Back Allegheny Mountain. The trip to Bald Knob (the third highest peak in West Virginia) and back takes about 4 hours.

The Cass Scenic Railroad is home to one of the largest collections of geared locomotives in the country – with Big #6 being the cornerstone of the collection. To learn more about their roster of preserved steam, including Western Maryland #6, be sure to visit the Cass Scenic Railroad website.

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