The Chesapeake & Ohio's mighty 2-8-4's belonged to one of steam's finest family trees. The first 2-8-4, Lima Locomotive Works A-1, inaugurated the superpower steam era in 1925. A four-wheel trailing truck allowed the A-1 to have a larger firebox and boiler, producing a combination of power and speed never before seen in a steam locomotive. Initially tested on the Boston and Albany, the new wheel arrangement was dubbed the Berkshire after the mountain range it conquered on the B&A.
At about the same time, the Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland, Ohio assembled a group of railroads under their control, including the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Nickel Plate Road, the Pere Marquette, and the Erie Railroad. Under the leadership of talented designer John Black, an Advisory Mechanical Committee was formed to design engines for the Van Sweringen roads; the group turned out some of the finest locomotives of the super power era.
One of Black's initial designs was a high-powered Berkshire for the Erie that improved on Lima's original ideas. For the C&O, Black designed a superb 2-10-4 that was a direct descendant of the Erie Berk. But perhaps the crowning achievement of the Advisory Mechanical Committee was its "Nickel Plate Berk," a 2-8-4 introduced in 1934 and called by steam historian Eugene Huddleston "the greatest 2-8-4 ever to take to the rails."
The C&O Kanawha was a first cousin to the Nickel Plate Berk. Because it already owned a successful class of Mikados, the Chessie was rather late to the Berkshire party. But by 1943 wartime traffic forced the road to order new power. As the War Production Board required that new engines be built from existing designs, the C&O ordered near-copies of the Nickel Plate Berk. Externally, however, the Chessie's locos had a different look - sandbox in front of the steam dome, low-mounted headlight, and oval number plate in the middle of the boiler front - and their own name: Kanawha, in honor of the river that paralleled Chessie tracks in West Virginia.
Affectionately known as "Big Mikes," the 60 class K-4 Kanawhas easily handled whatever the railroad threw at them: lumbering coal drags, high speed merchandise service, and heavy, fast passenger trains. They lasted to the end of steam and many were preserved, most notably #2716, which served the Southern Railway and later Norfolk Southern in steam excursion service until 1994. For 2010 the Kanawha returns to the Premier lineup, upgraded with wireless drawbar, improved speaker, cab-to-tender deck plate, and scale-sized smokebox hinges. Researched extensively from prototype photos and drawings, our model reproduces everything but the smell of the Kanawha, an engine that typified the best of modern C&O steam.
How do you say it?
An Indian name for West Virginia's largest inland waterway, Kanawha seems to have several "correct" pronunciations. "Kuh-NAW" appears to be the most common, but some say "Kuh-NAW-wa" and many local residents preserve a pronunciation from the colonial era: "Kuh-NAW-wee."