Bessemer & Lake Erie 643, One Massive Survivor

While steam locomotives were used to transport automobiles, Bessemer & Lake Erie 643 had the tables turned as she recently depended on semi-trailers to transport her to her new home. The Bessemer & Lake Erie (B&LE) Railroad was known for its massively heavy “H-1” class locomotives; and B&LE 643, the only surviving H-1, reminded railfans of such when the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum acquired the locomotive.

B&LE 643 sat outdoors for more than a decade when the former Bessemer & Lake Erie shops suffered damage.
B&LE 643 sat outdoors for more than a decade. (Photo: Kordite via CC by 2.0)

B&LE 643, A Late H-1 Locomotive

Operating lines in the hills of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Northeastern Ohio, the B&LE is a Class II railroad was built to haul ore and other heavy materials. In 1929, the railroad ordered their first H-1 locomotives, which feature a 2-10-4 wheel arrangement (known as the ‘Texas’ type). The B&LE would order a total of 47 locomotives for the H-1 fleet, with B&LE 643 being among the last received in 1944.

B&LE 643 was immediately put into service and became a workhorse thanks in part to her 64″ diameter driving wheels which allowed the locomotive to produce a tractive effort of more than 115,000 lb/f and travel 50 miles per hour… an incredible feat given the locomotive weighed 523,600 lbs. by itself with an additional 382,550 lbs. added by her tender.

Fueled by coal, 643 was active in freight service for the B&LE until 1952, when the company’s dieselization movement caught up with the locomotive. By this time, the railroad had sold or scrapped the majority of the H-1 class, but B&LE 643 was selected for preservation and was stored at the B&LE roundhouse.

Outdoor static storage took its toll on Bessemer & Lake Erie locomotive #643
Outdoor static storage took its toll on the Bessemer & Lake Erie locomotive. (Photo: Kordite via CC by 2.0)

Excursion Hopes Fade

Originally the railroad hoped to donate the locomotive to a museum but the locomotive would remain in storage for several decades. Bessemer & Lake Erie 643 was eventually put up for auction and sold to a railfan named Glenn Campbell who outbid the Steamtown USA museum.

After storing the locomotive in Hall, Pennsylvania, for more than a decade, Campbell acquired old Bessemer & Lake Erie shops in McKees Rocks. 643 made her way to the B&LE facilities in 1993 with restoration plans in mind.

By the end of the 1990’s, the locomotive was restored to operational condition. Unfortunately, that was only half the battle. Since 643’s drivers were rigid, she could only operate on routes featuring primarily straight tracks. That fact, coupled with her size and weight, severely limited potential lines for the locomotive to operate. So she returned to storage with plans of returning to operation seeming bleak.

Road Trip to the Age of Steam Museum

Bessemer & Lake Erie 643 enjoyed the comfort of indoor storage for most of her life, but a winter storm in 2006 did extensive damage to the shops where the locomotive was held. She was moved to an outdoor storage area and would remain subjected to the elements for more than a decade.

Given the difficulties the locomotive faced, Campbell opted to sell the locomotive… on Ebay of all places. In August 2019, the locomotive was sold to the Age of Steam Roundhouse (AoSR) Museum in Ohio. AoSR founder Jerry Jacobson had made several unsuccessful attempts to acquire the locomotive, which he referred to as ‘The King’. Unfortunately, Jacobson passed away in 2017, and the museum’s acquiring of the locomotive was viewed as a tribute to his legacy.

In reviewing all options for transporting 643 to the AoSR, it was determined that there was no feasible way for the locomotive to travel by rail and plans to transport the locomotive via truck were developed. Unfortunately, these plans require the locomotive to be disassembled for transport (and reassembled in Ohio), which is neither a cheap nor easy task.

The task to rebuild B&LE 643 is ongoing one for the AoSR, though the locomotive likely will not operate at the museum due to her physical constraints. To follow along with the rebuild or to learn more about the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum, head over to the AoSR website.