On James J. Hill's transcontinental railroad, the massive R-2 was king of the road. Although often lumped with the "robber barons" of the late nineteenth century, Hill built the Great Northern Railway without the government land grants and political shenanigans used by many of his contemporaries. One of his crowning achievements, according to author Burton Folsom, was his conquest of the Rocky Mountains "by finding the legendary Marias Pass. Lewis and Clark had described a low pass through the Rockies back in 1805; but later no one seemed to know whether it really existed or, if it did, where it was. Hill wanted the best gradient so much that he hired a man to spend months searching western Montana for this legendary pass. He did in fact find it, and the ecstatic Hill shortened his route by almost 100 miles."
Decades later, it was the Marias Pass that the R-2 was designed to roam, hustling freight over the easiest traverse of the Rockies enjoyed by any of the northern transcontinental railroads. Assembled in the Great Northern's own shops in 1929 and 1930, the R-2s benefited from the "superpower" steam technology developed in the late 1920s; they were the largest 2-8-8-2s ever built and exerted more tractive effort (pulling force) than a Union Pacific Big Boy or a DM&IR Yellowstone. In fast freight service between Whitefish and Havre, Montana, the R-2s could handle trains of almost any length, limited only by the strength of couplers and draft gear and the response time of the air brake system. (As train length increases, it takes longer for a brake application by the engineer to reach the final car on the train.)
Hard use during World War II led to cracks in many R-2 boilers, and all 16 engines in the class received new ALCo boilers in 1947-48. Soon after, F-unit diesels replaced the articulateds on the Marias Pass route, and the R-2s moved east to haul iron ore from Minnesota's mines. By 1958, when the final R-2s were retired, the Great Northern and the Norfolk & Western were the last American railroads to roster articulated power.
The R-2 returns to the Premier lineup for 2009, upgraded with additional details, wireless drawbar, and cab-to-tender deck plate. Featuring authentic articulated engine sounds and pulling power to rival the prototype, our model captures all the signature Great Northern details - including pilot-mounted headlight, massive smokebox-mounted air pumps, all-weather cab, Vanderbilt-style oil tender, and Belpaire firebox.