The "Best" Steam Locomotives
Obviously, this is a very subjective topic. Even so, there were certain steam locomotive
designs that stood out from the rest. If you have a different opinion, feel free to
send me information on explaining why.
The Best Pacific (4-6-2)
Pennsylvania's K-4 Pacific was probably one of the most successful American
locomotives of all time. 425 of them were built between 1914 and 1927. An
indication of the great respect the Pennsy had for this locomotive is the
fact that one of her type was selected as the railroad's monument to its
steampower at the famous Horseshoe Curve. This locomotive has since been
moved to the Conrail Shops (RRers Memorial Museum) in Altoona, PA.
- The Erie K-5a was an improvement over the USRA heavy Pacifics (K-5)
- The B&O P-7 class Pacific was basically a copy of the USRA heavy Pacific.
They were named for the first 21 presidents.
- The C&O F-17 class Pacifics were the most powerful 4-6-2s at that time.
The C&NW E class Pacifics were used to power the 400. At 347,000
lbs, the E-3 class were the world's heaviest 4-6-2s.
The MOPAC heavy Pacifics were similar to the Southern's Ps4s. Five were
built as oil burners and 12-wheel tenders. They were used to power the Sunshine
The Best Hudson (4-6-4)
Most Hudsons were of roughly the same design. New York Central had the
greatest number of Hudsons by far. The class J-1 and J-3a Hudsons of 1927
had 79 inch drivers. They were fast, powerful, very well proportioned (good
looking) and may have been the best known steam locomotive.
Also worth mentioning:
The Best Mikado (2-8-2)
The class O-8 Mikados of the Great Northern are the easy winners of this
type. Built in 1932 by the Great Northern, they were by far the heaviest,
fastest, and most powerful of this wheel arrangement. They were arguably the
best looking too. Because of their 69 inch drivers and large boilers, their
pulling capabilities were in the same league with the NYC&StL Berkshires and
The Best Berkshire (2-8-4)
Lima introduced the 2-8-4 wheel arrangement in 1925. Erie improved this
design by using slightly larger cylinders and larger (70") drivers making a
fast and large 2-8-4. The Nickel Plate (NYC&StL) further improved the design
by starting with a C&O T-1, removing one set of drivers, and applying
characteristics of the Erie Berkshires. NYC&StL called this class S-1. This
same successful design was later used on a number of roads including:
Wheeling & Lake Erie
Chesapeake & Ohio
Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac
The Best Mountain (4-8-2)
Originally designed for passenger service through the mountains, the Mountain
type became a fast dual-service locomotive. The New York Central called them
Mohawks. The Mohawks (class L-3) of 1940 had lightweight rods and 69 inch
disk drivers. This provided better counter balancing than most and helped
the Mohawks to cruise at 80 MPH.
The Best Northern (4-8-4)
This is a tough one. The reason this category is hard to pick is because for
many railroads, the Northern was the ultimate and most modern fast freight
and passenger locomotive. Most Northerns were well designed, modern
engines. Perhaps a few stand out though:
- Norfolk & Western J
- The most modern, most powerful, and strongest of all Northerns (built as late as 1950)
- Southern Pacific GS (Golden State class, later General Service)
- Arguably the best looking streamlined steam locomotives
- Union Pacific FEF-3
- Built to cruise at over 100 MPH
- Santa Fe 2900 class
- Heaviest and longest Northerns
- Regularly operated at 100 MPH
- Regularly climbed the 3.3% grade Raton Pass
- New York Central Niagaras
- Best boiler and drawbar horsepower of any Northern
The Best Santa Fe (2-10-2)
The B&O "Big Sixes" were an exception to the normal 2-10-2 "drag"
locomotives. The "Big Sixes" (class S-1) were powerful and faster than the
other 2-10-2s. Built in 1923, they had large 64 inch drivers and were used
as fast freight engines. They carried long Vanderbilt tenders. They were
called "Big Sixes" because their engine numbers were in the 6000s.
A case could also be made for the 140 locomotives in the Santa Fe 3800 class.
These locomotives were instrumental in heavy freight movement during WWII
and weren't retired until the mid 50s. Their tractive effort ranked in
the top five of this arrangement. Because of their successful career and
the number in the class, they could be considered.
The Best Texas (2-10-4)
The C&O T-1 2-10-4s were built in 1930 by Lima. Up to this time, most
2-10-4s were built as "drag" locomotives with smaller drivers. While helping
to provide greater tractive effort, the smaller drivers made it difficult to
balance the weight of the side rods and valve gear which was necessary to
operate at greater speeds. In designing their T-1 2-10-4s, the C&O basically
took an Erie Berkshire and stretched it into a 2-10-4. These T-1s had 69
inch drivers. Unlike most other 2-10-4s, the T-1s were powerful and fast.
This basic design was used for most 2-10-4s built afterward.
One exception to this were the Santa Fe 2-10-4s. They were built with 74 inch
drivers. The C&O 2-10-4s were heavier and could exert more tractive effort.
However, the Santa Fe 2-10-4s were faster. No other 2-10-4s were built with
drivers this large.
Another class of 2-10-4s worth mentioning were the T-1-b class of 1938 used
by the Canadian Pacific. The ten locomotives of this class were
semi-streamlined and used for passenger service through the Rockies. The CP
called them "Selkirks".
The Best 4-10-4
Wait a minute. There wasn't ever a 4-10-4 built in the U.S., was there?
Well, there was, sort of. In 1944 the PRR built #6131, a duplex-drive
4-4-6-4. A re-arrangement of the drivers and cylinders had solved the
problems of the Q-1. In 1945, 25 more Q-2s were built (6175-6199). The Q-2s
were the most powerful (HP) and strongest (tractive effort) of all
non-articulating steam locomotives. They were the most successful of all
duplex-drive locomotives. However, because of dieselization, most had a short
life and were stored by 1949. The Q-2s represented the ultimate in steam
freight development in America. In a way, they could be considered the
4-10-4s of America that were never built. Sadly, none were saved.
The Best Mallet (compound articulated)
The best compound articulated has be the N&W Y6 series (2-8-8-2). These
engines were simply the best of the breed, capable of high tractive effort
and yet able to pull at up to 50 mph. They could be run in either the
efficient "compound" mode as well as in the "stump-pulling" simple-expansion
mode where they could generate an astonishing 166,000 pounds of pulling