William D. Middleton. Norman Carlson

GE Steeple Cab Electric Locomotives

Somebody's Large Digital Image Here

Sacramento Northern 1000-hp Electric #654 on 22 February 1970 (W.L.Hammond photo / R.Craig collection)

Nearly four decades have passed since General Electric or any other domestic manufacturer has delivered new electric locomotives for hauling freight in daily U.S. or Canadian revenue service. A stark difference when contrasted to the the forty years leading up to World War II. Electrified rail lines and interurbans during that period played an important role in the economic growth of many North American communities, and the steeple cab locomotive was integral to that part of transportation history. The Baldwin Locomotive Works and General Electric (the two foremost builders of electric freight motors) perspective on the history of the Steeple cab differ as might be expected, but GE is generally credited with building the first electric freight motor. Built in 1893, the 30-ton 4-wheel unit featured a steeple cab and entered service on the Manufacturers Railway in Connecticut the following year.

Potential railway, interurban and industrial buyers had been slow to appreciate the full advantage offered by the electric freight motor; there of course was also the issue of infrastructure costs, even for direct current electrics. Although orders for new units materialized slowly, the major builders by 1915 had expanded their product lines to include 40, 50, 60, 70 and even 85-ton electric freight motors. While GE could boast of having built the world's first straight- electric railroad main line; Baldwin and its electrical controls /systems supplier Westinghouse became the leading producer of electric locomotives. BLW had already been North America's dominant steam engine manufacturer.

Early steeple cabs from both builders had a strong resemblance; best described by author and historian, Wiliam D. Middleton. "The main frame was typically built with four longitudinal steel channels, fastened to cast iron end frames or bumpers. The center cab and sloping hoods at each end were fabricated from angle iron and sheet steel." End hoods were removable without disturbing any equipment. GE sub-contracted the carbody and mechanical components to American Locomotive Co (Alco), also a long-time steam engine builder, as well as GE neighbor in Schenectady, NY. That relationship lasted nearly fifty years.

By 1907, BLW-built steeple cabs had transitioned to a much larger center cab, with two short stubby nose hoods. Baldwin also adopted a model classification system predicated on locomotive weight and horsepower (A, B, B-1, D and E). Meanwhile, the design of GE's standard steeple cab went unchanged; thus it became much easier to differentiate between the two builders. GE's model designations were a little more complicated, but provided a better description. Once again the words of author Middleton, "A model 404-E-80-4GE206-A, represented a 4-0-4 or B-B wheel arrangement, electric locomotive weighing 80,000 pounds and powered by four General Electric 206-A traction motors."

Electric railway and interurban systems in general utilized a 600-volt, direct-current power network; however as train size grew longer and heavier some rail operations converted to 750 or even 1200-volt power. On mainline railroads and heavy industrials a 3000-volt, direct-current system was more commonplace.

By the 1930s, GE steeple cab production had fallen victim to the diesel-electric locomotive, as had the steam engine. The few notable exceptions were GE 75 to 125-ton models built for the mining industry.

Next month, the focus will be on Baldwin steeple cab production.

* * * GE Steeple Cabs * * *
Ponema Mills 35-Ton

Built in 1894 for Cayadutta Railway, the loco was first to employ two, twin-axle swivel trucks. The small freight motor was retired in 1964 after serving on the Cayaduttta in New York and Ponema Textile Mills in Connecticut for more than six decades. Most pre-1900 GE-built steeple cabs featured a wide car-body, with extremely narrow footboards and operator access doors on both sides of the cab. (Photographer unknown)

Hutchinson & Northern 50-ton #2

The Hutchinson & Northern #2 of 1919 is distinctive as being the first GE Locomotive to employee a "frame-less" truck. GE Engineers used several innovative and cost-cutting measures to replace or reconfigure conventional bearings, journals and equalizer bars. For more detailed description, please use the link at page bottom. ** (Ward Davis photo at Hutchinson, KS)

Yakima Valley Transportation 50-Ton #298

By 1922, the car-body supplied by Alco had been expanded to provide for a more spacious area for motorman and equipment; plus end hoods were extended, as the photo of YVT #298 illustrates when contrasted to H&N #2. Air reservoir electrical equipment and control apparatus were installed under the long, sloping hoods. (Drew Jacksich photo)

Hanna Mining 60-ton #305

Hanna Mining #305 is commonly referred to as a side-pan (pantograph) steeple cab. Built in 1928, the 120,000-lb electric worked for the Minnesota-based mining company for 40 years. The eight-wheel locomotive was driven by a standard 600-volt system with four GE HM833B traction motors. (Keith Ardinger photo)

British Columbia Electric 64-ton #961

Five different companies and/or organization have held title to this steeple cab -- which makes it somewhat unique. The eight-axle freight motor was built by the GE-Alco team for the Oregon Electric Railway in June of 1912. From there the 64-ton electric went to the British Columbia Electric Rwy (1946), British Columbia Hydro (xxxx), Edmonton Transit (1980) and finally to Fraser Valley Railway Society in 2012. (xxxxxxxxxx photo)
Milwaukee Road ES-2 #E82

GE-built E82 was the last operating electric locomotive on the Milwaukee Road when the company "pulled the plug" on its 3000-volt, direct current electrified lines. One of four 164,000 lb electric switchers, the E82 and its sister units handled switching chores in the western mountain areas of Montana and Washington states. In addition to a pantograph for drawing power, the foursome were also equipped with trolley poles to recharge air compressors. (Keith Ardinger photo)
Kennecott Copper 100-ton #765

Tipping the scale at 201,000 lbs, this 1942 100-tonner was a one-of-a kind electric locomotive on an industrial roster comprised of numerous electric ore-hauling motors that ranged in size from 70 tons to a whopping 125 tons. Originally designed to run on standard 600-volt power, it was later converted to 750-volt, and eventually to 3000 volt. (Joe Brockmeyer photo)
Michigan Central RR 120-Ton #7505

In 1910, the Alco-GE partnership delivered six 120-ton electric motors to NYC subsidiary Michigan Central RR. The large steeple cabs were designed to haul passenger and freight trains through the Detroit River Tunnel which had a 2.13 percent ruling grade. The 650-volt, direct current locomotives were dual-mode with overhead wire and third-rail power pick-up, as well as articulated trucks. (Detroit Publishing photo)
Chicago North Shore 66-ton #455

GE-built #455 was one of two dual-mode electric locomotives on the CNS&M roster. Built in 1927, the #455 and sister 456 had re-chargeable storage batteries which facilitated the switching of local industries located off-wire. On April 15, 1964, #455 was spotted in North Chicago. (Marty Bernard photo)
Notes & Credits: ** More information on the frameless truck can be seen at Chuck Zeilers'Flickr account . . . https://www.flickr.com/photos/chuckzeiler/24538880145/in/photolist-JEMocn-2aQwU6k-JmRAho-JCzU17-Doqb9r.

Reference sources:

  • Classic Traction by William D. Middleton
  • Interurban Era by William D. Middleton
  • Norman Carlson, managing editor "First & Fastest," Shore Line Interurban Historical Society
  • "Utah Rails" website by Don Strack
New: 1 August 2021 Formatted by: R. Craig

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