It was the dawn of a new age in rail transportation, one in which coal-fired steam locomotives gave way to oil-powered diesels. By the spring of 1936, Bloomington residents could travel between Chicago and St. Louis on the Alton Railroad’s streamlined, diesel passenger train known as the Abraham Lincoln.
This leap into modernization was the Alton’s bid to compete with the rising popularity of automobiles and the rapid increase in paved road mileage. It was a losing battle, but the “Abe” and other streamlined diesel trains did capture the imagination of the traveling public and helped slow down, if only for a while, the precipitous decline in passenger rail traffic.
In 1935, General Motors’ Electro-Motive Corp. delivered an 1,800-horsepower diesel locomotive to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and by the following year the No. 50 engine was earning rave reviews at the head of the Abraham Lincoln, the flagship of the B&O-controlled Alton.
Although diesel locomotives helped railroads compete against the twin juggernauts of the automobile and oil industries, most would agree that these new engines lacked the romance and beauty of the steam age.
For all its advantages, No. 50 resembled, at least outwardly, a New York subway car, and its utilitarian boxcab design put engine crews out front with little protection in case of grade crossing collisions. Recognizing this problem, workmen at Bloomington’s west side Alton Shops fabricated a false shovel nose (see accompanying image), which not only provided a measure of protection for the engineer and crew, but also gave the rather homely engine smoother lines.
This diesel, as well as a steam locomotive and two eight-car streamlined trains (one constructed of aluminum alloys and the other Cor-Ten steel) were built for the B&O with a $900,000 loan from the federal Public Works Administration. Each of the two trains originally consisted of a mail-baggage car, lunch counter-diner car, three coaches, two parlor cars and a parlor-observation combo. This New Deal project served as stimulus spending for the railroad industry, as well as a real-world test for aluminum versus steel trains, and diesel versus steam locomotives.
At this time, the B&O-led Alton found itself in competition with the Illinois Central Railroad, the other major passenger carrier between Chicago and St. Louis. Thus the decision was made to devote B&O’s new streamlined steel train to the Alton in order to match, if not best, IC’s planned upgrades, especially when it came to increasing speed and reducing travel time.
The Alton’s streamlined Abraham Lincoln made its debut on July 1, 1935. The train was first pulled by the steam locomotive Lady Baltimore until the arrival 10 months later of No. 50.
The Illinois Central’s new streamlined diesel train, known as the Green Diamond, entered service in 1936. When it stopped in Clinton on May 5 during a test run, stores closed and a crowd of more than 2,000 local residents gathered to gawk at the sleek newcomer.
A week earlier, April 27, the Alton’s No. 50 diesel made its first regular run out of Bloomington at the head of the Abraham Lincoln. This competition between the B&O and the IC likely spurred the Alton to embrace diesel and streamlined passenger service earlier than it would have otherwise.
In 1937, the aluminum train running on one of B&O’s East Coast routes was sent to the Bloomington Shops, where the cars were refurbished before replacing those from the Abraham Lincoln. The removed steel set was likewise “shopped” at Bloomington and became the Ann Rutledge, named for Lincoln’s supposed sweetheart from his New Salem days. These two streamlined trains, one diesel-powered and the other steam, became known as “Abe” and “Annie.”
By the early 1940s, No. 50, now shorn of its shovel nose, served as a booster (or second engine) on the Abe, and in later years it handled local freight runs between Joliet and Bloomington and then pulled commuter trains from Joliet to Chicago.
The Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad bought the Alton in a 1947 merger. Conversion to diesel then picked up — ah hem — steam, and in 1949, the GM&O became the first Class I (or mainline) railroad to fully dieselize, a milestone in U.S. transportation history that warranted coverage in Life magazine.
The pioneer No. 50 diesel made its last commercial runs in 1956, though unlike most locomotives it avoided the scrap yard. Instead, it was donated to the St. Louis Museum of Transportation, where it remains to this day.