May 1993

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The Fabled Run

of the "999"


Donovan A. Shilling

It was a time when iron horses roared through our area on long ribbons of steel. But the vast four-track transportation system, known as the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad was under a cloud of negative popularity as thick as the smoke generated by its mighty locomotives. In their posh executive offices, the railroad magnates met to discuss ways of improving their tarnished image.

Fame! Glamour! Positive publicity! That's what they desired. The year was 1890, and the rapid, spider-like expansion of the New York Central had gobbled up many respected smaller lines. In our area alone five railroads were combined. These included the Rochester and Auburn, the Rochester & Syracuse, the Rochester, Lockport & Niagara Falls, the Tonawanda and the Buffalo & Rochester railroads. Most of these lines had been swallowed up by 1853.

In his book The History of the New York Central System, author Aaron E. Klein traces the machinations of some of the railroad's early pioneers. One such railroad mogul was Erastus Corning. It was Erastus Corning who had used his money and forceful personality to hammer these beloved little roads into the mighty New York Central. In acquiring his empire Mr. Corning had $23 million at his disposal. That was a whomping amount in the 1850s, "almost half the 1853 budget of the United States!" Corning, a close friend of Martin Van Buren, was once mayor of Albany and served two terms as representative to the U. S. Congress. The empire builder also held other positions of influence. He was president and owner of the Albany Iron Works and the Albany Nail Factory. On becoming president of the newly consolidated New York Central, his Iron Works was quickly converted to making railroad carriage wheels, and the Nail Factory immediately began the production of rail spikes. Naturally his firm's best customer was the New York Central. The railroad spent $71,000 for new wheels and $84,000 on rail spikes. It proved to be a most financially satisfying arrangement for Mr. Corning.

In 1867, through a long series of clever stock manipulations, Cornelius Vanderbilt became president of the New York Central. He merged the line with the Hudson River Railroad and thus was born the extraordinary New York Central & Hudson River Railroad. It was his son, William H. Vanderbilt, who took over the throttle after Cornelius passed away in 1887. Just as tough as his dad, William continued to bully the competition and eventually took control of the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg (known to many as the "Hojack Line") and the Boston & Albany, "creating a hostility in New England that lasted for decades. It was also the feisty young Vanderbilt who uttered the insensitive and infamous phrase, "The Public be damned!" That was in reply to a reporter's query about the railroad's duty to the public.

With this background of takeover and turmoil we can better understand the Central's need to regain public approval. It had belatedly occurred to the railroad's directors that the age of public opinion had finally arrived. Vanderbilt's snarly attitude had won them widespread negative reaction and censure by the citizenry. They needed to overcome the public's antagonism.

A world's fair exposition was to open in Chicago in 1893 to honor Columbus and his discovery of America. Grand railroading and locomotive displays were being planned by builders from both Europe and America. It became the hope of New York Central executives to out-dazzle and out-class all the competition at the great gay-nineties fair.

Two men, George Henry Daniels, a highly creative individual heading the passenger traffic department, and Charles H. Hogan, a crack locomotive engineer, would win the day for the Central. It was Daniel's idea to tap into the public's craze for a new locomotive speed record. He reasoned that nothing would more impress the masses, fire up their imaginations and win back their support than running the world's fastest locomotive. Charley Hogan, the Chuck Yeager of his day, was chosen to make the run for the record. Just as speed aces are honored today, so, too, did kids look up to train engineers like Charley Hogan.

In the same fashion that race cars are especially designed for the Indianapolis Speedway, a special locomotive was designed and built to attempt a new speed record. The design for a locomotive capable of record speed was conceived by William Buchanan, New York Central's motive-power superintendent. On September 14, 1891, a high-stepping locomotive plunged along the 436 miles from New York City to Buffalo drawing the Empire State Express at an average speed of 61.4 miles per hour—and that included stops in Albany, Syracuse and Rochester.

But that speed wasn't enough. Both engineer Hogan and Daniels were striving for 100 mile-per-hour travel.

A new locomotive with seven-foot-high driving wheels was built. It was an Atlantic-type with a wheel arrangement termed "4-4-0," four leading wheels followed by four driving wheels and no trailing wheels. It was the engine's impressive drivers, standing taller than a man, that gave the awed onlookers the impression that the locomotive was built to fly!

Neatly painted in silver, just below the cab windows and lettered in Railroad Roman script, were the proud numerals 999. The numbers undoubtedly chosen for both their form and their feeling of reaching toward the end of the millenium, at that time just seven years away.

It was springtime, 1893. The much-heralded Columbian Exposition was going to open its doors to the world in just a few months and Daniels wanted that record set quickly to get as much publicity as possible prior to the fair.

Mike Vogel, a reporter for The Buffalo News, wrote a column praising Charley Hogan, who in later years, managed the Depew, New York car shops during the first World War. He noted that Mr. Hogan's fondest memory was once meeting Abraham Lincoln. That was in 1864 when he was a 14-year-old water boy on the New York Central.

On Wednesday, May 9, 1893, a test run was made from Syracuse to Buffalo. The "999" was pulling "The Empire State Express," a string of four Buffalo-built Webster Wagner "parlor cars." (This greatly disappointed Albion-native George Pullman who, he thought, had designed a superior passenger car.) On her first try the loco's boiler lost some pressure and 25 minutes due to "boiler foaming." To make up time Charlie pushed the throttle wide open just west of Rochester. The long stretch there was five miles of clear, straight track. He tore past the 100 mile per hour mark and pushed his thundering engine up to an incredible 102 mles per hour. It was spectacular, but few knew about it. The "999" was given an overnight's rest in Buffalo and returned to Syracuse for a second try. On Thursday, May 10, George Daniels tipped off reporters that on her westward run a special newsworthy event might happen. That morning Charlie Hogan, who would be called the "king of engineers" after this run, mounted to the cab. He smiled and told his fireman, Al Elliott, that the trip could turnout to be a "real humdinger!" Even the passengers in Syracuse felt that the trip was to be an unusually swift one. There was to be only one scheduled stop and that was in Rochester to take on water and passengers. With his engine fully broken in on yesterday's 102 mile trial run Charlie felt very confident Additionally, he knew that a workcrew of gandy dancers had been especially assigned to reballast and carefully align fourteen miles of track just west of Batavia.

Clicking along at modest speed the train reached Rochester. There a large delegation of reporters and the curious boarded the "Empire State Express." Soon the "999" was pounding along leaving a trail of white steam, black smoke and spinning cinders behind her. Fireman Elliott, covered with a film of sweat and coal dust, piled shovelful after shovelful of coal into the engine's voracious fire box. Hogan had just whizzed by his hometown of Le Roy and then flashed through Batavia. Already reaching a speed approaching 90 miles per hour, Charlie's "999" roared up to the straightaway.

The determined engineer then held the throttle full out forcing the great spinning drivers to rotate more than 400 times a minute. As stop watches were pulled out they recorded the miles streaming by in "42 seconds, then 41, 38, then 35, equaling the speed of the day before." A Buffalo reporter from the Buffalo Evening News wrote:

There was just the slightest kind of a jerking sensation for the briefest part of a second, and then the train settled down, and when the mile posts flashed by in a cloud of dust and cinders the stop watch showed that all the railroad records the world ever saw had been smashed out of shape.

Another Buffalo reporter noted that "the clickety-click of the rails sounded like musketry, and the telegraph poles along the track seemed like pickets in a fence." One more mile sizzled by and someone in the crowd shouted in triumph "thirty one and a half seconds!" The incredible speed of 112.5 miles per hour had been set by the marvelous "999." It was the fastest anyone in the world had ever traveled up to that time. Charlie Hogan, sweat soaking into the red handkerchief tied around his neck, turned to his soot-covered fireman with a broad grin. He slapped his big hand into that of Al Elliott. "I told you this run was going to be one heck of a humdinger," he happily reminded his tired companion.

News of the astonishing record was telegraphed immediately back to New York. The following day newspapers throughout the world proclaimed the dramatic feat in banner headlines. A jubilant threesome, Charley Hogan, William Buchanan, and George Daniels were swamped with praise and congratulations. Even the often dour Chauncey M. Depew, appointed by Vanderbilt as president of the New York Central in 1883, had to smile. The Buffalo News observed:

If the Central officials wanted a record for this engine preparatory to exhibiting her at the World's Fair they have got one now that beats all previous records and even taxes the mind to comprehend.

As we might suspect, the "999" became a showy centerpiece in the New York Central's attention-winning display at the Columbian Exposition's grand opening. Its fame increased and resulted in the "999"'s wide reproduction in cast iron toys, and eventually on electric trains. The Cagney Brothers of Jersey City "made over three thousand miniature versions of the "999" for amusement park railroads as far away as Thailand and South Africa."

Most unusual perhaps was the publicity coup Mr. Daniels pulled off with the U.S. Postmaster General. According to one account he "cajoled" the postal official into featuring the "999" on a 2-cent stamp. Issued in 1901, the two-cent stamp is titled the "Fast Express." It displays a lithograph of the "Empire State Express" printed in black with an ornate red border. The little stamp was the first bicolor stamp issued since 1869 and the first stamp to be issued in the 20th century. 158 stamps with the train accidentally inverted in its center were printed in 1901. In 1975 one of these stamps sold for $19,000!

Where is old "999" today? Well, it was discovered that, although she was fast, her pulling power was limited. She was withdrawn from passenger service and relegated to duty hauling a lowly milk train. By the 1920s she was ready for the scrapper's torch. Just in time, a knowledgeable railroad official recognized that the "tired iron," now numbered "1086," was in fact "ol' 999." Thus she was spared, restored and made a museum piece. The next time you're in Chicago, drop in at the Museum of Science and Industry. There, since 1962, you can admire and even touch the historic locomotive whose blistering swiftness set a world's speed record. It's fabled run is still a favorite subject and much discussed by rail fans wherever they gather. "The '999'," they say, nodding their heads, "Yes, she was truly magnificent"

©1993, Donovan A. Shilling
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