Friday, August 07, 2009

The Joe that Never Was

The Milwaukee Road was famous for its Western electrification. The wires were strung between wooden poles much like an interurban line and images of Boxcab electrics and Little Joes can be found all over the web. Especially photos of the Little Joe electric locomotives. These 5000+ hp monsters plied the Rocky Mountain Division from their purchase in 1950 until the wires came down in 1974.

The story of their arrival on Milwaukee property is well known, but interesting. Originally destined for the Soviet Union in 1946, they found themselves stranded state side due to mounting Cold War tensions. Legend has it they were named "Little Joe" as a reference to the dictator they almost knew. They sat for 2 years at GE's plant in Erie PA before finding homes. Some were taken to South America, 3 others to the South Shore Electric Line, and the remaining 12 to the Milwaukee Road in 1950. It is ironic that one of the problems the Milwaukee faced with its electrification in 1974 was a lack of electric locomotives. They had the opportunity to purchase the entire lot of electrics from GE in 1948 but passed, and as such, lost a few to the other lines. It seems as though the price was right from GE -- they really just wanted them off the lot, but the demo locomotives proved "slippery" on mountain grades and the power supplied through the overhead wire needed a boost from 3000 to 3300V DC to take full advantage of their pulling power. With these modifications made, the 12 the Milwaukee finally obtained in 1950 proved exceptional units until 1974 and the demise of western wires.

Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away from the Milwaukee's Western Extension, America's other electrified railroads on the East Coast were dabbling with their own variety of electric locomotives. Among them the famous GG1 of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Amazingly these GGs worked for up to 4 railroads during their very long lifetime: The Pennsy, Penn Central, Conrail, and Amtrak. Another entry from GE was the EP-5 electric, nicknamed "Jets" because of their loud blower motors as they raced along the New Haven railroad's lines north of New York City.

As the toy train industry boomed in the 1950s, models of the PRR GG1 and N.H. EP-5 were both well represented by the iconic Lionel corporation. Both models took a few liberties with length (or in the case of the EP-5, length and axle count), but certainly captured the look of the real units. In Lionel's history, it was the N.H. EP-5 that came first in their line of EP-5s, but it was not the last. While the real world limited the use of the Jet to the east coast and the New Haven RR specifically, Lionel saw no need to limit its model to that one particular niche. Proudly following on the heals of the N.H. model, came the Milwaukee Road EP-5 and the Great Northern EP-5. Both pretty models but fantasy in the tradition of toy trains of the period. Instead of Jets, they were even referred to as Little Joes.

Hence, we have the Little Joe that never was. There are some similarities between the Jet and Joe: the cabs have a similar GE style, and at first glance they appear to be quite similar units overall with their dual pantographs and streamlined stylings. The Jet was just a few years newer (1955) and, like the Joe, had ceased being used by the mid 70s. By 1977 all examples were scrapped. They remained thousands of miles apart in the real world: one chewing through miles and miles of mountainous, lonesome terrain and the other on sprints between the big cities of the East Coast. In Lionel world, however, lashups were common.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting story! Lionel suffered from lack of detail because of their manufacturing technique. "Lost wax" (where did it go?) placed the brass imports at the head of the class.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment. You're right, there is a certain simple look for most Lionels of the era. Just enough detail to capture some of the main elements, but not much more. Perhaps this was also done to make them more friendly to small hands? Take care, -Leland