By Thomas Dyrek
It was the fall of 1959. The Nickel Plate Road’s steam era had come to an end a year before, and now only a couple of locomotives were steamed up for the occasional fan trip. The once proud NKP steam fleet was now calling the scrap lines at Bellevue, OH home. Among the long lines of rusted out Berkshires, Mikes, and smaller locomotives sat class H-6-e Mikado number 639. Little did anyone know that soon, the 639 would become one of only three NKP 2-8-2’s to escape the torch.
Built by the Lima Locomotive Works in December of 1923, the 639 sported the newest features for NKP locomotives of the time. It was assigned to freight runs over the former Lake Erie and Western between Frankfort, IN and Peoria, IL. By the time it was retired over 30 years later, it had traveled over three million miles.
During the later years of its service, the locomotive’s tender had mechanical issues. Instead of spending the money to repair the tender, the NKP’s shop forces decided to replace the tender from recently retired ex-LE&W 2-8-2 number 587. The 587 was later preserved with the 639’s original tender and still carries it today.
Bloomington, IL was one of the towns along the Frankfort-Peoria route. During the later months of 1959, the city requested a locomotive from the NKP to be displayed at Miller Park south of downtown. Due to its connection with Bloomington, the 639 was an easy pick and before long, crews were repairing the locomotive and preparing it for its final journey over the LE&W to Bloomington. Repainted with a light gray smokebox and whitewalls, the 639 looked as good as new. Pulled behind a diesel and riding on its own wheels, it arrived at Bloomington on October 14.
However, the moving process was only halfway done. The locomotive and tender had to be trucked over a mile to the park and up a steep hill. Heavy haul specialists Tony Totterer and Don Stein of Bloomington were put in charge of moving the train. The morning after its arrival, the 639 and tender were jacked up onto supports and moved away from the tracks. The next day, a truck was called in and the two pieces were loaded for their final journey. The 639 was slowly and carefully navigated through the crowded warehouse district surrounding the tracks.
The public swarmed the sidewalks paralleling the streets over which the train travelled. Moving a 160-ton locomotive up a steep hill is not easy. The truck almost made it but lost traction near the top. Two smaller trucks came to the rescue and aided the effort to crest the hill. The locomotive safely arrived at Miller Park a couple hours later and was once again put on supports for the night before being set on the new display track the next day.
For the remaining days of October, crews set up the display area around the locomotive and tender. A tall barbed wire fence was put up around the setup, but before it was completed workers arrived one morning to find a giant cardboard windup key stuck to the side of the locomotive by some local pranksters. Stairs leading up to the cab were added for tours, and a plaque was placed in front of the locomotive. A semaphore signal was also added to the display.
Newspapers were all over the developing story. Bloomington’s newspaper, The Pantagraph, devoted a half page in its October 16 edition. The headline read, “Veteran Iron Horse Retired to Pasture in Miller Park.” Mrs. Horne of Bloomington (no first name was recorded) wrote an accompanying article called “The Little Engine That Came Back to Roost” which was written for kids to read. Once completed, the display and locomotive were dedicated on November 1. Representatives from the Nickel Plate and the City of Bloomington attended and spoke a few words. Deemed “Bloomington’s First Citizen,” NKP 639 was now officially home.
Over the years, the locomotive became Miller Park’s centerpiece. Cared for by members of the Central Illinois Railroad Club, the 639 was often opened up to the public for tours and became a well-known place of interest in the area. Later on, a sign from a recently demolished Chicago and Alton (later Gulf Mobile and Ohio) shop building on the west side of town was added to the display along with the shops’ shift change whistle. In 1996, the track behind the tender was extended and a Southern Pacific bay window caboose was added.
Over time, city management changed and the caretakers moved on and interest in the locomotive was mostly lost. Mother Nature was not kind and by 2000 it needed major cosmetic work. John Sciutto, a member of the Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello, IL, repainted the locomotive in 2004 to be completely black minus the numbers and letters. However, today the locomotive is still in a sorry state. While vandals have thankfully left the display alone, plants are growing in various places around the locomotive and rust has consumed many components. The Lima builder’s plates are still there but aren’t looking too good. The semaphore signal has seen better days and the caboose could use some TLC too. The display has not been opened to the public in several years.
Hopefully, someday someone will step up and make the 639 look as good as new once again, and if we’re really lucky, it will be removed from the park and returned to service. Until then, the engine, tender, and caboose will remain at Miller Park, and although in poor shape, they will still bring back memories and inspire people to become railfans. And, no matter how sad it may look now, it still is, and always will be, Bloomington’s First Citizen.
The Pantagraph, 12 October 1970 page 3
The Pantagraph, 16 October 1959 page 3
The Pantagraph,14 October 2006