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The author captured Cass Scenic No. 6 during the 2007 Cass Railfan Weekend. This Class 90-3 Heisler was C/N 1591, built in 1929 for Bostonia Coal and Clay Products, New Bethlehem, Pa., as No. 20. Acquired by Meadow River Lumber Co., in Rainelle, West Virginia, in 1939. Photo by Chris Lane

History of the Heisler Geared Steam Locomotive

By Chris Lane/Photos as noted

There were a number of locomotive manufacturers that produced geared industrial locomotives, but the “big three” were Shay, Climax and Heisler. Heislers were the least popular in terms of sales, selling about 625 units worldwide, compared to 2,761 Shays and between 1,030 and 1,060 Climax locomotives. What Heisler lacked in sales, it made up for in durability and power. Heislers were generally well-liked by their crews, steamed well and were simple to maintain. They were also the fastest of the geared engines, able to go upwards of 20mph. A Shay couldn’t go much beyond 12-14mph and the bigger Climaxes were said to have developed very unsettling vibrations for the crews at even lower speeds.

In spite of the high speed, Heisler’s sale materials claimed to haul 15-30% more tonnage than comparably sized competitors. Ads also almost always included the tag line, “For hauling heavy loads on steep grades, sharp curves and uneven road.” Many of the surviving ads were targeted at lumbermen, but the Heisler was also popular in mining operations. Around 38 of these unique locomotives still exist and between 8 and 12 are operational. In the United States, you can see a Heisler operating at the Roaring Camp Railroads in California, Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, Sumpter Valley Railroad in Oregon, Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in West Virginia, Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad in Wasington state, Silver Creek & Stephenson Railroad in Illinois, Roots of Motive Power in Willits, California, and the privately owned Phoenix Marble No. 1 which operates on the Passumpsic Railroad in Vermont.

Invention and early history
The development of the Shay and Climax locomotive paralleled one another in that they were both invented by lumbermen, (Ephraim Shay and Charles D. Scott respectively), both were mechanically adept tinkerers, but they relied on outside firms to assist with engineering and fabrication, (Lima & Climax Manufacturing) and both invented their locomotives in the peak period of lumbering between 1880 and 1896.


Charles L. Heisler and his locomotive were a bit different. Heisler was a trained mechanical engineer and had some 60 patents granted in his career on everything from a vegetable cutter, to a device to combine sound with a motion picture projector to yield talking motion pictures, to the locomotive that bears his name. In 1891, while in the employ of Edward Nichols, who was president of both the Brooks Locomotive Works and the Dunkirk Engineering Company of Dunkirk, New York, Heisler first thought of a locomotive that could compete with the Shay and Climax. His early design made improvements to the Dunkirk locomotive, which was built to the Gilbert patent.

As an aside, Dunkirk’s George D. Gilbert was originally employed by Climax Manufacturing in Corry, Pennsylvania and was a relative by marriage of Charles D. Scott. Gilbert was a draftsman and engineer at Climax, and when it became apparent that Scott’s locomotive was going to be a success, he assisted Scott in filing for a patent. When issued however, Scott’s name was nowhere to be found on the patent, and when Gilbert clashed with Climax president R.S. Battles, he took his patents and went to Dunkirk. Burned by Gilbert, subsequent patents for Climax listed Battles as the inventor, causing Scott to sue both Battles and Gilbert. Scott eventually prevailed, but the court cases left him both physically and financially tired. By the time he’d won, Dunkirk and Climax had stopped building locomotives using his design, so he reaped little monetary reward for his idea.

The Dunkirk/Gilbert (and early Class A Climax) used a vertical boiler combined with a small two-cylinder marine type engine. The vertical boiler was not very thermally efficient and the marine engine limited the size of the cylinders (and therefore power). The marine engine crankshaft transmitted power to the trucks with a centerline shaft, which connected the power to the wheels through skew bevel gears. This made all the wheels powered, a good thing, but the gears themselves were hard to both design and manufacture. No mathematical formula existed at the time to design them and there was no gear-cutting machine capable of making them. Wooden patterns were developed by trail and error and when perfected, were used to cast the metal gears, which then had to be hand polished. Their location inside the truck made them both exposed to the elements and harder to access for maintenance and lubrication, and lubrication is vitally important to any geared locomotive.


Here's a closeup of the crankshaft and universals on Cass Heisler No. 6. You can see the counterweights on the crankshaft to the lower left of the photo, and the linkage to actuates the Stephensen valve gear. The eccentric for the valve gear is on the lower right. Photo by Chris Lane

Heisler started with a horizontal locomotive boiler, which used the heat energy much more efficiently. He then used two standard slide valve cylinders but arranged them in a “vee” on each side of the boiler, meeting at a crankshaft under the centerline of the boiler. Not apparent in his patent drawing or from photos, but the cylinder on the fireman’s side is offset forward from the other side to give clearance for the connecting rods on the crankshaft. Heisler used a center shaft like the Climax and Dunkirk, and universals and sliding shafts like the Shay, Climax and Dunkirk, but once he got to the axles on the trucks, he changed things up. He used a beefy, straight cut bevel gears but only on the front axle of the front truck, and the rear axle on the rear truck. Power was transmitted to the other axle on the truck with a side rod. In addition, these gears were encased in a metal housing filled with heavy oil. This kept the gears protected from rocks and the elements while providing them a continuous lubrication bath. In practice, lubrication chores were only slightly eased for the enginemen, and indeed servicing was made more difficult by the need to disassemble the gear covers, but Heisler touted the lubrication angle and “half the gears” per locomotive as a selling feature in their ads.

Dunkirk built one prototype to Heisler’s design in 1891 for F.A. Addington of Little Washington, North Carolina and by all accounts, it was a successful locomotive, but circumstances caused it to be the last Heisler from Dunkirk. Heisler’s benefactor, Edward Nichols, died in 1892, and Dunkirk had no interest in building his locomotive and renounced all rights and patents to Heisler.

Interestingly, Dunkirk did build a few more locomotives (Class B) to a Gilbert patent that were remarkably similar to the Heisler. They had a horizontal boiler and the vee-cylinder arrangement, along with the center shaft drive. The chief difference was the cylinders were located inside the cab, and the trucks had the same skew bevel gear arrangement as the Dunkirk Class A. One might wonder if Gilbert was up to his old tricks of patent jumping, but his patent was granted in 1889, two years before Heisler’s. While it is certainly possible Gilbert beat Heisler to the punch filing the patent, given Heisler’s patent experience, it is as or more likely that Heisler was brought in specifically to improve Gilbert’s design. Regardless, Dunkirk only built about 50 locomotives total, with the Class B locomotives being the majority. Heisler moved on to much bigger and better things, eventually selling 625 of his designs. Likewise, Gilbert returned to Corry, Pennsylvania, after Dunkirk’s demise in 1894 and was City Engineer until his death in 1900.

After leaving Dunkirk, Charles Heisler moved to Philadelphia and met George Burnham of the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Burnham was also a large shareholder in the Stearns Manufacturing Company of Erie, Pennsylvania, a firm that specialized in sawmill machinery and with close ties to the logging industry. Heisler entering into an agreement with Stearns in 1894 to manufacture locomotives that closely followed his 1891 patent design. A few locomotives were built as Heisler tweaked the design and in 1896, Stearns built A. W. Stevens Lumber No. 1 - s/n 1007 for a lumbering line in Chatawa, Mississippi. Named the A.W. Stevens Jr. this was Stearns’ first 14-ton Heisler and the likely prototype for the Bachman On30 Heisler model.


A.W. Stevens Lumber No. 1, built 1896. Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth Schauble Collection, courtesy of Geared Steam Locomotive Works

There are a couple of interesting items to note on this locomotive. It features a “Tee” or Boot boiler, which mirrors what Shay and Climax were doing in that same period. This is a transitional style in boiler building with the tubes running in the horizontal section for greater heat transfer. The vertical section has the firebox in the lower part of the section, and the crown sheet in the middle part, which gave a much greater surface area than a simple vertical boiler. The upper section acted as the steam dome. Also, the spoked wheels had no counterweights, and this was true for all the early Heislers. The need for counterweights was recognized quickly and Heislers from 1897 on had them. They also offered cast-iron weights that could be bolted between the spokes as a retrofit for the early locomotives.

Expansion and Decline of the Heisler
While the Heisler was a little late to the party, the lumbering industry was still going strong at the turn of the century and with Stearns’ contacts in the business, orders quickly poured in. Recognizing the need for improvements to the design and for larger locomotives, Heisler and Stearns made changes as they built. One of the key early changes was to equip the locomotives with a wagon top boiler, and Heislers carried some form of wagon tops until the end of production. Because of the compactness of the locomotive, the early Heislers had an extremely steep and pronounced angle on the second course of the boiler. Former West Side Lumber Co. No. 2, the Tuolumne at the Big Trees & Roaring Camp Railroad in California is a good example of this style.


Famed photographer Otto Perry captured Swayne Lumber Co.'s Heisler at Oroville, California, on August 2, 1935. This shows the steep wagontop boiler seen in early Heislers. Otto C. Perry Memorial Photo Collection, Denver Public Library

In 1897, Heisler patented a design for a larger locomotive. At first glance it appears to be a longer standard Heisler, but with three trucks, and four cylinders arranged in the usual vee configuration; two per side. The patent also specified improvements to the trucks and gears, an ashpan built in a “U” shape to go around the center driveshaft, an extended smokebox with specific construction of baffles to keep sparks from escaping, and a diamond shaped frame that carried the weight of the cylinders independent of the boiler. Closer inspection reveals that rear fuel and water bunker was tied to the locomotive with a drawbar and could swivel independently of the front section of the locomotive. While it doesn’t appear that the locomotive in the drawing was ever constructed, many elements of it were incorporated into new Heislers, notably the diamond frame, longer wagon top boiler and the truck designs. The company would later patent a true three-truck design with the water bunker riding on its own separate truck, but this patent was clearly the forerunner of that design, and showed that Heisler was moving ahead.


Between 1897 and 1904, Stearns built around 85 locomotives ranging from 14 tons to 60 tons. They standardized on two frame designs; a steel channel frame with a single queen post on each side by the firebox for locomotives up to 42 tons and the diamond frame for 42 tons and larger. However, the diamond frame was also applied to a number of smaller locomotives, down to 24 tons. They also standardized a closed vestibule cab (although the customer could specify an open one), and the cab was moved further back on the boiler. For unknown reasons Stearns was closed in 1904 and the business assets, including the Heisler patents, were sold to local Erie businessmen.

Locomotive building resumed almost immediately, but in 1907, this was separated from the boiler, engine and sawmill machinery business and moved to a different factory as the Heisler Locomotive Works. Business was brisk and Heisler built a wide range of locomotives from the tiny, 14-ton model up to a three-truck 95-ton monster. They even built a single truck Heisler for Lake Shore Stone Products, but eventually settled on building eleven basic models and sizes. These ranged from 24 to 90 tons and each had both a name and numerical catalog code. The “name” code was commonly used by many of the locomotive manufacturers so that a salesman in the field could telegraph the company and get the locomotive started without any mix-up in the specifications. An example would be the “Arouse” which catalog code was 42-8-33, meaning 42 tons, eight wheels (two truck) and the driver diameter was 33”. The “Aside” 90-12-40 was the largest, at 90 tons, 12 wheels (three truck) and 40” driver diameter.

Heislers continued to gain in sales into the 1920’s. Both Heisler ads, and stories in the lumbering trade publications touted that once a company tried a Heisler, they usually went back and bought more and as lumbering shifted west to the Pacific Northwest, the perceived speed advantage on the longer western lines and strong west coast sales office accelerated the trend. The final Heisler design upgrades were forced by an unlikely competitor on the west coast. Willamette Iron & Steel Works of Portland, Oregon had been a top supplier of donkey engines and the repair or rebuilding of locomotives, especially Shays, for some time. In 1921, many of Lima’s Shay patents expired and Willamette jumped into the logging locomotive business, building thirty-three between 1922 and 1929. They featured many modern improvements that west coast loggers wanted like all-weather cabs, girder frames, cast steel trucks, super-heaters and piston valves.


Here's Heisler No. 6 at the Cass coal dock. This locomotive is representative of the Heislers built just before the introduction of the West Coast Special Heisler, having a saturated steam boiler and slide valves. Historians believe this locomotive to be a "fire sale" loco, as Heisler was pushing the West Coast Specials at the time, and the boiler on the locomotive was built in 1924. Perhaps Bostonia Coal & Clay didn't want to pay the premium, and this locomotive was cobbled together from old parts inventory. The boiler was built new in 1999 using the original 1924 boiler as a pattern. Photo by Chris Lane

At first, Lima and Heisler paid little attention as they offered many of these features as upgrades to their stock locomotives, but as both companies experienced cancelled orders, each moved to answer. In 1925, Lima introduced the Pacific Coast Shay, which offered every refinement of the Willamette as standard. Heisler responded a bit later with their West Coast Special Heisler. These locomotives were thoroughly modern and well received, but neither sold in the quantities the companies hoped. Even with their long-time competitor Climax closing 1928, and Williamette building less than three dozen engines, the new logging locomotive market had gone soft. After the Stock Market Crash in 1929, Lima was having trouble selling any locomotives; even their stalwart Shay sold only seven locomotives in the 1930’s. Heisler fared better, outselling Shay and garnering the lion’s share of sales in the 1930’s but that was still much diminished from the numbers sold in the 1920’s. With the coming of WWII, Heisler ceased operations in 1941, closing the chapter on a most interesting and useful locomotive design.

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