When Nightwatch Trains acquired a rare collection of brass HO scale locomotives, you can imagine the excitement of unpacking one of the top picks in the entire group: an Alco Models “Jawn Henry” steam turbine locomotive, built in 1982 by Kumata. Only 175 were ever made, an outstanding example of a long-gone piece of American railroad history.
The Norfolk and Western #2300 was a single experimental steam turbine locomotive known for its troublesome boiler controls. Doomed to the scrapyard well more than a half century ago in 1961, this legend lives on in the hearts and minds of railroad fans around the world.
Inspired by this great find, here’s a little history on the real-life Jawn Henry, Norfolk & Western’s giant locomotive from the glory days of steam.
This phenomenal loco of the Norfolk and Western Railway got its “Jawn Henry” moniker after another American legend, steel driver John Henry. He is considered a folk hero because as the story goes, he raced against a steam-powered rock drill and came out the winner.
However, he died right after the contest. It’s not known exactly where this contest even took place, with a number of locations suggested over the years, including WV’s Big Bend Tunnel, Lewis Tunnel in VA, or Coosa Mountain Tunnel in AL.
As you may have already guessed, the historical accuracy of many of the facets of the John Henry tale have long been debated. Now, back to the history of the original Jawn Henry steam turbine loco…
Wise Motives Behind Experimental Steam Turbine Locomotives
The Jawn Henry was an experimental locomotive, the final in a series that were tested by several railroads from the 1930s-50s. One key intention behind the testing of the steam turbine locomotive was to discover a means to keep using steam as main line power. This was particularly important to the Norfolk & Western Railroad, because they had an established policy of solely running steam locos.
The motives behind testing out the steam turbine concept made sense: Back then, the N&W Railroad owned huge coal reserves, which meant a very economical fuel source. In fact, one of the railroad’s nicknames was “King Coal.”
Did you know? The former N&W was a US class I railroad once headquartered in Roanoke, VA. It merged with Southern Railway back in 1986. That merger resulted in what we know today as the Norfolk Southern Railway.
Steam Gives Way to Diesel, Even on the N&W Railway
Alas, testing proved unfruitful to the three railroads who investigated the potential of these steam turbine locos. Overall, they were found to be too complicated, inefficient, and not particularly dependable. During the three years that the Norfolk & Western RR experimented with the fierce Jawn Henry, not even the experts of steam could iron out the many troubles that beset the giant locomotive.
While the N&W was well-known for manufacturing their own steam locomotives and hopper cars, it finally came to recognize that the once-promising steam turbine locomotive just couldn’t compare to modern diesels of the time. By the mid-50s the N&W Railroad bought their first diesels, and the Jawn Henry became a piece of railroad history.
The Norfolk & Western Railway continued its use of steam – after 1960, they became the last Class I railroad employing steam locomotives. The same year that the Jawn Henry was retired – 1961 – the final remaining Y class 2-8-8-2s were retired by the N&W.
Why was the N&W #2300 doomed? Many reasons.
From bottom line costs to mechanical woes, Norfolk & Western’s #2300 Jawn Henry locomotive didn’t measure up.
1) It wasn’t very cost-effective to build the steam turbine locomotive compared to either a regular steam or diesel model. Not to mention even the controls were complicated and the turbine often proved a challenge to service.
2) The #2300 used a Babcock & Wilcox water-tube boiler with automatic controls; dust from coal as well as water often entered into the electric traction motors and led to various problems.
3) The 161-ft long Jawn Henry exceeded the length of both the As or Ys by over 50 feet. It was so big it couldn’t fit on any of Norfolk & Western’s turntables.
All in all, the Jawn Henry unfortunately didn’t come close to meeting anyone’s expectations. It was a case of what happens when we try to hang on to something that has had its day…in many ways, the train symbolized a resistance toward advancing technology. Sounds a lot like today, right?
Even before the midcentury, it was clear that diesel was the reigning authority. There was no denying that diesel was fast becoming the #1 power behind modern locomotives.
At the same time, it was getting more costly to maintain the steam locomotives that had once been the kings of the railroad – not to mention the hassle of sourcing parts for them. N&W had to face reality: keep hanging on to the “old” – or step up to embrace the new.
Norfolk & Western wasn’t unique in that – we all have to make that choice at some point or another. For N&W, it seems they discovered the truth behind the infamous quote,
“The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way’.”
-Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom