“What is the 999 Steam Locomotive at the Museum of Science & Industry?” by S.M. O’Connor

The sleek black 999 Empire State Express Steam Locomotive set a speed record in 1893 that stood for ten years and was displayed at Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893).  Sitting at the entrance of the Transportation Gallery, which takes up the whole East Court at the Museum of Science and Industry’s Central Pavilion, it immediately grabs the attention of steam train aficionados, wee Thomas the Tank Engine fans, and steampunk enthusiasts.[1]

William Buchanan, master mechanic and superintendent of motive power at the West Albany Shops, designed the 999 and it was manufactured for $13,000 in-house by the New York Central Railroad in Albany, New York.[2]  The New York Central Railroad was part of the Vanderbilt system of regional railroads that stretched from New York City to Chicago.  The engine was two horizontal cylinder, nineteen-inch (48.26 cm) bore, twenty-four-inch (60.96 cm) stroke, 160 lbs psi (1.10 Pascal) steam-power engine with tractive power of 16,270 pounds (72,369 Newtons).  It was fueled by bituminous coal.  The drive wheels are 7 feet, 2 inches (86” or 2.18 meters) in diameter.  The total weight of the 999 is 124,000 pounds (56,363.64 kilograms).

The idea was to build an engine fit to haul the New York Central Railroad’s newest passenger train, the Empire State Express, which was intended to carry passengers between Syracuse, New York and Buffalo, New York.[3]  On May 10, 1893, the 999 became the first vehicle ever known to have achieved a speed of over 100 miles per hour, when it reached a speed of 112.5 miles per hour (181.06 km/h), a record that stood for a decade.  Billed as the “World’s Fastest Locomotive,” the 999 toured the U.S.A., and went on display at World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago’s Jackson Park in 1893.[4]  The jeweler and watchmaker Webster Clay Ball (1848-1922),[5] was at that time the Vanderbilt system’s Chief Time Inspector, and in 1895 he introduced the size eighteen 999 pocketwatch to commemorate the 999‘s historic journey from New York City to Buffalo on May 10, 1893 in which the train became the first man-made vehicle known to have traveled at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour.

The engine continued to provide passenger and freight service for decades, and returned to Chicago twice before being donated to the Museum of Science and Industry (M.S.I.), appearing at Chicago’s second World’s Fair, A Century of Progress International Exposition (1933-34) in 1933 and the Chicago Railroad Fair (1948-49).  The M.S.I. was intimately connected with all three of these fairs, as the M.S.I. is housed in the Palace of Fine Arts, the last remaining pavilion from the White City fairgrounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition to still be standing in Jackson Park.  Rufus Cutler Dawes (1867-1940) was President of A Century of Progress Corporation and the fourth President of the M.S.I.  Major Lenox Lohr (1891-1968) was Vice President & General Manager of A Century of Progress Corporation; fifth President of the M.S.I. (1940-1968); President of Chicago Railroad Fair, Inc.; and the first Chairman of the Board of the M.S.I. (1967-68).  His protégé, Daniel MacMaster (1913-2005), was the fourth Director of the M.S.I. (1951-1972), General Manager of the Chicago Railroad Fair, Inc., and sixth President of the M.S.I. (1968-1978).

Technological innovations in the railroad industry in the mid-20th Century limited the practical use of the 999.  Consequently, in May of 1952, after a re-enactment of the record-breaking run, the 999 retired from service.  On September 25, 1962, Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Company President John Walker Barriger III (1899-1976) and Chairman of the Board Alfred Edward Perlman (1902-1983)[6] presented the M.S.I. with the New York Central’s 999.

The train was placed on display near the Columbian Basin, roughly perpendicular to the U-505 and Burlington Zephyr, which had been on display behind the East Pavilion, respectively, since 1954 and 1960.  On September 14, 1962, one of the 999’s former engineers from the 1920s, Fred D. Seipel, visited the train at the M.S.I.[7]

The M.S.I. accepted the 999 “as is.”  The Museum Workshop produced a pilot fashioned of heart of cypress, a kerosene headlight, a drawbar, and flag holders.  By December 7, 1964, the cab had been restored, as well, using cypress wood bedded down with waterproof mastic, covered by “a lead-coated copper-bearing steel roof.”[8]    In February of 1965, Major Lohr estimated the cost of restoring the 999 would be $22,036.00 ($14,284.00 to restore the engine and $7,752.00 to restore the tender).[9]  This estimate was for the benefit of New York Central Railroad Vice President Douglass Campbell.  In August of 1966, Lohr thanked Perlman and Campbell for donating a substantial sum to this effort.  The primary concern was casting the four 86” drive wheels (which Lohr called “big wheels”) like those the train originally had.

The 999 underwent restoration work from June to October of 1993, after which the company Double J Heavy Haulers moved it indoors.  [Meanwhile, the Zephyr was taken north to undergo renovation at the Northern Rail Car shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1994.  On December 14, 1994, the M.S.I. officially transferred ownership of the Santa Fe 2903 steam train to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois, and in March of 1995, IRM and contractor R.J. Corman moved the Santa Fe 2903 engine and tender, weighing more than 600,000 pounds, to a ramp leading up to the elevated tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad (I.C.) west of the M.S.I..][10]  In 2008, a boarding ramp was added to the 999 exhibit to allow visitors to enter the engine cab, as they had been able to do when the artifact stood outside with the U-505.

csm_999_02_3c95e030ad

Figure 1 Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This is the 999 Empire State Express Steam Locomotive.  Hanging overheard, we see the Piccard Balloon Gondola and parts of the Supermarine Mark 1A Spitfire and Junkers JU-87R-2 Tropical Stuka.

1

Figure 2 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the 999 Empire Express Steam Locomotive, as seen on Monday, December 24, 2018 during the Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light festivals.  The Great Train Story can be seen in the background.

3Figure 3 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the 999 Empire Express Steam Locomotive, a 2008 Tesla Roadster, a 1923 Milburn Model 27L Light Electric, and The Great Train Story in the Museum of Science and Industry’s Transportation Gallery, as seen on Thursday, November 15, 2018.  The underside of the United Airlines Boeing 727 and other airplanes can be seen at the top of the picture.

 

Often stylized as the “Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago” or the “Museum of Science + Industry” the institution is located at the northern end of the Chicago Park District’s Jackson Park, on the south side of 57th Street, between Lake Shore Drive to the east and Cornell Drive to the west, in the East Hyde Park neighborhood of the Hyde Park Community Area (Community Area #41) on the South Side of Chicago.

Normally, the M.S.I. is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  However, it will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from Saturday, June 22, 2019 through Sunday, June 30, 2019.  The address is 5700 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60637.  The Website is https://www.msichicago.org/ and the phone number is (773) 684-1414.

ENDNOTES

[1] Steampunk is a science fiction subgenre inspired by the works of Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946) that incorporates the technology and aesthetics of the Victoria era.  An early example, if not the very first, was the C.B.S. western/spy/science fiction series The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969), which had two Secret Service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) who traveled across the U.S.A. in a luxurious train tricked out with cutting-edge technology and Gordon’s disguises.  At the behest of President U.S. Grant (1822-1885), they confronted villains, a few of whom were sorcerers, but most of whom were rogue inventors who had developed technologies decades ahead of their time.

[2] “The 999 Steam Locomotive,” exhibit fact sheet, dated 11/99

This is the only source cited for this paragraph.

[3] “The 999 Steam Locomotive,” exhibit fact sheet, dated 11/99

This is the only source cited for this paragraph.

[4] Similarly, after the Burlington Zephyr, also now at M.S.I., set a speed record in 1934, it toured the country, then set a long-distance speed record going from Denver to Chicago on an express run in half the time a steam train would normally need, and went on display at a world’s fair held in Chicago, A Century of Progress.

[5] Webb C. Ball is best known as co-founder of both the Webb C. Ball Company (a Cleveland jewelry store that evolved into a watch manufacturer based in Switzerland) and later a Vice President of the Hamilton Watch Company (today a Swiss company and part of the Swatch Group).

[6] Walker and Perlman were both famous railroad executives.  At the time, Perlman was Chairman of the Board of The Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Company and President of its parent company, the New York Central Railroad.

[7] Museum press release, dated September 17, 1962

Museum of Science & Industry, Collections, Institutional Archives, Press Release Files, Press Releases 1962-1963, file “1962 July-September Press Releases”

[8] Letter dated December 7, 1964 from Lenox Lohr to Douglass Campbell

Museum of Science & Industry, Collections, Institutional Archives, Correspondence Files, Presidential Files, Lenox R. Lohr Collection, Major Lohr’s Exhibit Files (1951-1968), file “New York Central “999” / 1964”

[9] Letter dated February 25, 1965 from Lenox Lohr to Douglass Campbell, p. 1

Museum of Science & Industry, Collections, Institutional Archives, Correspondence Files, Presidential Files, Lenox R. Lohr Collection, Major Lohr’s Exhibit Files (1951-1968), file “New York Central “999” / 1964”

[10] This is the same railroad passengers use when they take Metra’s Electric District to the 55th-56th-57th Street station in Hyde Park.

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