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Casting Call

Summer 1998 | Volume 14 |  Issue 1

STRASBURG, PA. Replica sailing ships and historic buildings are commonplace; I have lost count of the number of reproduced Santa Marias . Locomotive replicas are much more rare. During the past 70 years or so, only three have been built in the United States, so it was newsworthy when Stanley P. Gentry, an industrialist of Ribbing, Minnesota, decided to build a replica of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad’s first locomotive, the Lyon .

The original engine was produced in San Francisco by the Union Iron Works in 1869. It was a small freight engine for its day, weighing only about 20 tons, but its six driving wheels gave it enough power to overcome the steep grades of Nevada’s V&T Railroad. This line hauled silver from the mines at Virginia City to stamping mills on the Carson River. In time the rich ore gave out, but the railroad ran on until 1950, its ancient equipment, romantic past, and Wild West setting making it a favorite among railway enthusiasts. Photographs, tickets, timetables, and any scrap of memorabilia became treasures to diehard V&T fans. Stan Gentry is a V&T aficionado who can afford to take his collecting beyond the matchbook level.

Creation of the locomotive has been entrusted to the repair shops of the Strasburg Rail Road. Strasburg is located in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country, about five miles south of Lancaster. The air is pungent with the smells of natural farming. I saw a manure spreader pulled by four mules not far from the railroad’s terminal. The shopwork is being done in between regular repairs for the Strasburg’s trains and outside jobs that are time-critical. To date, the driving wheels, frame, cylinder saddle, and deck plate have been completed. The cylinders are under way, but much remains to be done, so we won’t see a steam-up for several years.

A recent visit to Strasburg led me to the very crowded workplace where the Lyon is slowly coming together. The shop is packed with disassembled locomotives, machine tools, workbenches, and hundreds of loose parts. One must walk carefully to avoid tripping over a journal box or cylinder head. Still, I have visited far more disorderly shops. This is a place to do heavy mechanical work as quickly and as well as possible, and in the process it’s natural that plenty of dust and some confusion will be created.

Just before my visit in early March, word had arrived that the first cylinder casting was defective. This came as no surprise to David Reisig, a veteran patternmaker with 49 years’ experience in the business. A steam-engine cylinder has a complicated network of hollow interior passageways, or ports. Positioning the cores used to create these passageways, and correctly packing sand to support them, is a critical part of a foundryman’s job.

Typically the first few castings will be failures even when done by the most experienced men, if the job is a complex or unusual one, and they don’t come much more difficult than the cylinders needed for an 1869 steam engine. In this case one core shifted, making the wall thickness too great at the bottom of the left side and too thin at the top. To make matters worse, the core failed and the passageway filled with iron. On the right side the molten iron mixed with sand to form a spongy fill inside the steam ports. So the molders tried again. They packed the sand more tightly against the cores. They placed the mold right side up rather than upside down, to put less pressure on the steam port side of the cylinder. And they poured the molten metal at a lower temperature.

The metal is common gray iron, a favorite material for machinery fabrication because it is easy to cast and machine. It is strong in compression but less so in tension, where it tends to crack or break. While cast iron is abundant and cheap, the cost of patternmaking and casting has made it less competitive with steel plate fabrication in modern times. The foreman at the Fairmount Foundry in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, has promised that his men will produce two perfect cylinder castings no matter what it takes. Linn Moedinger, manager of the Strasburg shops, says that these guys never give up, and that is why he has patronized Fairmount. Moedinger is determined to have the engine on its wheels by December of this year. That leaves the big job of the boiler and a great number of other more minor pieces to be done. Stay tuned.

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