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  • Milwaukee Road's Fast Mail

    An unusual glimpse at an unremarked workhorse


    Photography by John H. Kuehl unless otherwise noted.

    Exuding all the intrigue and mystery its name implies, the Fast Mail carefully protects its reputation awash in a "sea" of attendant baggage carts as it disgorges its trove of assorted mail and express at Portage, Wis., on a "dog day" evening in early July 1970. - Photo: Mike Schafer
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       When considering Milwaukee Road passenger operations, the Skytops, Super Domes and streamlined Hiawatha's immediately come to mind. However, not all of Milwaukee Road's first-class trains carried passengers. The famous Morning, Afternoon and Olympian Hiawathas provided fast daytime service between Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and the West Coast. After sunset, when the premiere speedsters had already arrived at their final destinations, a decidedly different drama unfolded. Although the Milwaukee will be best remembered for its distinctive homebuilt Hiawatha fleet, the CMStP&P's nocturnal first-class operations had a different and interesting flavor.

       Concerning itself primarily with moving large volumes of passenger traffic during the day, the Milwaukee carried the bulk of its mail and express business at night. The task of hauling most of this overnight traffic was assigned to trains 56 and 57. In an era when most mail and express trains were designated by number only, the CMStP&P happily bucked the trend in referring to train 56 as the Fast Mail. Assisting 56 and 57 in handling overnight mail was train No. 4, The Pioneer Limited, which carried both express cars and a railway post office car, and train No. 55, a Chicago-Minneapolis local. Daytime mail and express was carried by trains 5 and 6, the Morning Hiawatha and train No. 58, No. 55's counterpart. The Fast Mail was an appropriate name exemplifying both railroad tradition and the importance of its mission. And fast it was...Train 57 made the Chicago-Twin Cities run in 9 hours, 15 minutes - expedient running indeed, taking into account the various 20-30-minute stops occasioned en route. Milwaukee's reputation for high speed and dependable service personified by the Fast Mail remained in the OFFICIAL GUIDE until April 1971, long after other railroad mail contracts had been discontinued.

    One can almost experience the frustration of the crew of E9A No. 31A heading up No. 56 impatiently awaiting late No. 57's departure so 56 can take her turn accomplishing tasks-at-hand in Portage, Wis., in July 1970. Note the hogger of 57 inspecting his charge, comprised of FP7A 103C and an unidentified FP45, followed by 57's typical consist of baggage and express cars of all shapes and sizes. - Photo: Mike Schafer
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       There was nothing glamorous about the Fast Mail's looks; it was strictly a workhorse. Unlike the sweeping, streamlined consists of the Hi's, Nos. 56 and 57 carried different types of heavyweight and lightweight RPO's, baggage, express and storage cars, express boxcars, coaches, sleepers and piggyback flat cars.

       Throughout much of its career, passengers were carried only on eastbound train 56, which handled from one to four coaches. However, train 57 was also included in public timetables, as a "fast mail and express train" which carried "no passengers or baggage." In 1954 and 1955, Second 57 usually carried from one to four coaches for passengers bound for points between Chicago and Milwaukee and La Crosse, Wis.

       Train 57 departed Chicago at 9 p.m. and made stops at Milwaukee, Portage, New Lisbon, Camp Douglas, Sparta and La Crosse, Wis., Winona, Red Wing and St. Paul, Minn., before arriving in Minneapolis at 6:15 a.m. Eastbound, No. 56 departed Minneapolis at 8:20 p.m. and, because it carried passengers, made additional stops at Hastings, Lake City and Wabasha, Minn., Camp McCoy, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Columbus and Watertown, Wis., Deerfield and Western Avenue before arriving in downtown Chicago at 6:20 a.m.

       During the 1950's when the Milwaukee handled a considerable amount of mail and express traffic, 56 and 57 were operated in two sections. Consists averaged between 15 and 24 cars. The westbounds, designated First and Second 57, carried a great deal of traffic received from Eastern connections. These cars were put on the head end of both sections. Number 56's second section was usually run as Second 4, due to the fact the eastbound Pioneer Limited departed Minneapolis after First 56 and before its second section. Train 56 and Second No. 4's consists largely consisted of cars that had arrived St. Paul from the West coast on train 18, the Columbian.

       The Fast Mail picked up and set out cars en route at Milwaukee, Portage, La Crosse and St. Paul. At the other scheduled stops, mail and express was loaded from baggage wagons spotted on the various platforms. With the exception of the Portage stop where unsorted mail was loaded directly into the RPO's, all mail picked up en route was pre-sorted in bags and loaded into the mail storage cars. Adhering to its schedule was always a challenge, since delays while handling large quantities of mail commonly occurred. Up to 45 minutes were spent loading and unloading mail at New Lisbon. Delays also occurred at Portage, La Crosse - and Milwaukee, where heavy amounts of mail were handled. Milwaukee Road had the U.S. Mail contract between Chicago and Milwaukee, so all mail destined for points in northern Wisconsin on the Chicago & North Western had to be transferred to the C&NW at Camp Douglas by No. 57, where it continued on train 515, the Victory, to points in northern Wisconsin.

    Train time at Portage: A deserted platform at Portage hums with activity on yet another balmy summer evening during June 1970. The operator's office replete with its "art deco" staircase is in full view of the intense activity connected with the offloading of mail from 57's Tap car-turned-RPO. - Photo: Mike Schafer
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       Upon 57's arrival in Milwaukee, the registered mail was unloaded into postal trucks that were backed up to the train. Pouches of mail that had been sorted en route were unloaded from the RPO's and storage cars onto baggage wagons alongside the train. As the mail was transferred, the locomotives were cut off and watered while the head end of the train was switched. Storage cars for Milwaukee were set out and loaded cars for St. Paul and beyond were added. Prior to 57's arrival, express cars destined for Portage and La Crosse were taken by a switcher past the curve ay the east end of the depot and added to the rear of the train. These cars had arrived earlier in the day on train 9, the Copper Country Limited, whose contents had been sorted during its layover in Milwaukee. An express car with conductor's room or a baggage-dorm served as a rider car for the flagman was also included on the rear of the train.

       Departing Milwaukee late meant trying to make up time before arriving in Portage. Whenever the operator at Watertown learned of 57 passing Duplainville (17 miles west of Milwaukee), he would not dare allow anything else to occupy the plant, for 57 was allowed just 23 minutes to cover the 29 miles between Duplainville and Watertown!

       Upon arrival in Portage, the express cars to be set out were pulled off the rear by the switcher and spotted on the express track just east of the depot. Meanwhile, baggage wagons full of unsorted mail were loaded into the RPO's. Signs nailed up under the train shelter listing small towns in northern Wisconsin directed mail handlers to the proper cars for loading. As soon as the transfer was completed, 57 was given a highball and roared out of town, doing a good 40 mph as the last car cleared the platform.

       During the early 1960's, Milwaukee purchased Flexi-vans for high-speed mail service. Typically, these cars were added to the rear of 57 at Milwaukee and set out at Portage and La Crosse. At La Crosse two Flexi-vans were usually set out and spotted on a siding by a nearby crossing. Each Flexi-van car carried two vans, each loaded with 1600-2400 sacks of mail. To unload the cars, the vans were turned on built-in rollers perpendicular with the car, then a four-wheel bogey was placed underneath. Tractors were backed up, connected and the vans were then driven away; the entire process of transferring the vans between modes took only 12 minutes!

       From La Crosse, the vans were transferred via Milwaukee Motor Freight to four post office regional distribution centers in Wisconsin and Minnesota. During 1954 and part of 1955, First 57 also set out a sleeper for Austin, Minn., which was then forwarded to Austin by train 157. The 6-section, 6-double bedroom sleeper was usually filled with Hormell company salesmen traveling to and from points east and their home office in Austin. This service was provided as a courtesy to the Hormell company, one of the Milwaukee's bigger shippers. Soon afterward, the heavyweight sleeper was replaced with one of the road's lightweight River-series cars and was carried to La Crosse on the Pioneer Limited.

       Departing La Crosse, the train left the La Crosse Division and began operating over the River Division of the CMStP&P where it made stops at Winona and Red Wing. Along the Missisisippi River running was a bit slower on account of numerous curves, although there were some fast stretches. One trainman recalled that numerous times 57 departed Red Wing with three brand new E9's and approximately 22 cars. As soon as the slack was taken out, the engineer put the throttle in "run eight." The speedometer steadily climbed to 112 mph which was maintained for a distance of six miles until the brake reduction for Hastings was made three miles out of town.

    Top: One of Milwaukee's heavyweight express-rider cars in its customary position as the Fast Mail's "anchor" near Milwaukee during July 1960. Left: RPO 2150 was originally built for the 1938 Hiawatha but was later made available for systemwide pool service. No. 2150 reposes between runs at the California Avenue coach yard in Chicago, date unknown. Below left: Details of Milwaukee's RPO trucks; these trucks also appeared under equipment ordered and built for the 1938 Hiawatha.

    Above left: Detail of lettering found on the sides of MILW RPO's. Above right: Detail of trucks used under 1100-class Express Messenger cars. Many Hiawatha cars shared common assemblies and detail parts. Left: The first streamlined baggage cars built by Milwaukee shops predated even the Hi itself, having been constructed during November 1934. Originally possessing smooth sides, they were later outfitted with their characteristic "ribs." Milwaukee referred to its baggage cars as "Express cars." Below left: Heavyweight express cars such as No. 1074 at Milwaukee were constructed by CMStP&P in their own shops in the Beer City, 1074 being a member of the "class of '28." Photos: Jim Scribbins
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       Upon arrival at St. Paul, much of the train's consist was set out, including the rider car, and only the power and a few express cars were forwarded to Minneapolis. At Minneapolis, 57's power was uncoupled, serviced and placed on train 6, the Morning Hiawatha, for a fast turnaround to the Windy City.

       Train 56 left Minneapolis in similar fashion with the exception of additional coaches placed on the head end before picking up the bulk of its train in St. Paul. First 56 was usually entirely made up of Milwaukee Road equipment, as rarely were cars from the East or REA reefers included in the first section; instead they were placed on Second No.4.

       In addition to pick-ups and set-outs at St. Paul, La Crosse, Portage and Milwaukee, No. 56 picked up a sleeper and several express cars at New Lisbon. These cars for Chicago originated at Minocqua, Wis., and were forwarded to New Lisbon by train 256, the Tomahawk, where they were swapped to the rear of the Fast Mail. First 56 then forwarded them to Milwaukee where the sleeper, a 10-section, 1-compartment, 1-drawing room heavyweight, was set out. The coach passengers and storage cars continued to Chicago via No. 56; the sleeper was later picked up by the Pioneer Limited.

       In the years following World War II, sleeper traffic on 56 was considerably heavier. During this period, the Fast Mail handled a 10-1-1 sleeper and a coach between Minneapolis and Chicago and picked up two 10-1-1 sleepers (one for Milwaukee) and a diner-buffet at New Lisbon. This service lasted, with few changes, until 1952 when No. 56 was relegated to carry the Copper Country's sleepers between Milwaukee and Chicago. In the following year the 10-1-1 sleeper was replaced with a 10-section buffet-lounge. In 1954, sleeper service was discontinued on No. 56 between Minneapolis and Chicago and the sleeper picked up at New Lisbon was now a River-series 8-6-4 duplex, which First 56 handled to Milwaukee. Sleeping-car service to the North Woods was discontinued during 1962 and the Fast Mail became "coaches only." Westbound, cars for Minocqua took turns being set out at New Lisbon by train No.1, the Pioneer Limited, train 15, the Olympian Hiawatha and train 17, the Columbian.

       On the head end of First 57 was a block of mail and express cars from Eastern connections. Between four and eight New York Central express cars (including some former troop sleepers) and a mixture of Railway Express Agency and Merchants Despatch express reefers were common. Pennsylvania, Erie and other Eastern carriers were also occasionally represented in its consists. These through cars were given priority movement to St. Paul where most continued to points on the West Coast and others were interchanged. In addition, Burlington, Soo and Great Northern cars were also handled. Second 57's head end sometimes also included cars from the Eastern roads, although it was predominantly made up of Milwaukee's own equipment.

       Two RPO's were always carried on the first section and were located toward the rear of the train. During holiday periods and whenever mail volume was heavy, up to four RPO's were used; the RPO's ran in pairs with their sorting ends adjacent to one another. This arrangement made the transfer of mail to the St. Paul storage car from the RPO's easier. On occasion, combination express-RPO's were used. With the decline in express business, Milwaukee decided in 1962 to rebuild seven 1208-series express-RPO's into straight RPO's, thus increasing their mail-handling capabilities. The new cars, numbered 2154-2161, saw regular service on the Fast Mail until its discontinuance. The road's shorter 60-foot RPO's built specifically for carrying mail on the Morning Hiawatha were used on trains 5 and 6 and 55 and 4. The lead RPO on No. 57 returned the following night on No. 56 while the second one laid over an additional day before returning on train 58.

    Above left: One of 56 and 57's most endearing qualities was that they carried such a variety of different types of mail and express-carrying equipment. Frequently a component of 56 and 57 was various storage mail-express cars off connection Great Northern. Above right: Fast Mail companions were the various express refrigerator cars from Railway Express Agency, such as REX 7196 in PC's Chicago coach yard.

    Top right:
    Milwaukee shops were masters of "prototype kitbashing." One example of this is storage car 1922, which began life as a heavyweight sleeper. Middle right: Baggage-dormitory car 1311 was typical of those sometimes found in 56 and 57's consists as rider cars. It was built in 1947 for the Olympian Hiawatha by Milwaukee shops. Bottom right: This shot depicts an early "End-of-Train Unit," rider car a la Milwaukee Road and one of the Flexi-van flats mentioned in the text. By the decade of the Sixties, many railroads such as the Milwaukee experimented with many kinds of methods of carrying COFC and TOFC in their passenger trains. Top right: Milwaukee and side ribs were most certainly synonomous! Ribs were standard equipment on even such "lowly" relations as express car 1308. She began life as express-tap 153 built for the 1938 Hiawatha. No. 1308 was one of the earliest of all streamlined cars converted (in November 1943) for mail and express service. Middle right: 90-seat suburban car 4575 is the former 470 built in May 1942 for the Hiawatha pool. It was fairly representative of coaches used on the Fast Mail. Bottom right: This unusual homebuilt truck design was cast and fabricated by Milwaukee shops, which built the majority of its passenger and a great deal of its freight equipment. This particular truck supported many 1942-built cars.
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       A variety of the road's combination storage-express cars followed the RPO's. Like most roads, the Milwaukee had many different types of head-end equipment including both streamlined and heavyweight baggage and storage cars. By 1956, a number of the heavyweight cars were rebuilt with six-wheel roller-bearing trucks and new doors equipped with porthole windows - a Milwaukee trait. Streamlined express cars that emerged from Milwaukee's shops in 1938 were still being used in 1971. Additionally, many cars from the same era were modified for head-end service. With a surplus of passenger equipment occasioned by dwindling ridership, Milwaukee, between 1952 and 1964, converted 25 passenger cars into mail storage cars. Included were 1935- and 1938-built parlor cars and Beaver Tail observaions plus Touralux sleepers, tap cars and diners from the 1948-vintage trainsets. The unique styling and flavor the Milwaukee built into the Hiawathas was still apparent on the Fast Mail. Gone, however, were the fluid lines of continuous skirting and the horizontal ribs. It was fortunate that these distinctive cars survived and were still contributing to the road's revenues.

       Operating with the CMStP&P's full-length mail and express cars, Milwaukee also had a fleet of shorter express-type boxcars. Similar to freight equipment in appearance, these 50-foot horizontal-ribbed cars were equipped with high-speed trucks, steam and signal lines and a modified brake system. Operating in passenger service, Nos. 1600-1624 were painted in Milwaukee's traditional orange-and-maroon colors. After 1955, some received the Union Pacific's Armour Yellow and Harbor Mist Gray scheme. During the '60's additional 50-foot express boxes were used. Having roller bearing trucks and equipped for passenger service, these cars were painted Boxcar Red with yellow doors, white lettering and stenciled EXPRESS.

       The passenger coaches w hich ran on the Fast Mail, whether deadheading or in revenue service, consisted of hand-me-down Hiawatha equipment. During the 1950's when 3-4 coaches were carried, cars built in 1935, 1938 and 1942 were used. With patronage declining and the end of the mail contracts in sight, 56 carried but one coach. Still, its distinguishing characteristics among Milwaukee trains were unique; often easily confused as a freight train, she was definitely first class!

       Prior to World W ar II, the Fast Mail was usually assigned one of Milwaukee's fast, dependable Class F-6 4-6-4's. The speedier Baltics operated on the Fast Mail's first sections while the heavier, slower second sections drew a Class S-2 or S-3 Northern.

       With the arrival of the road's first passenger diesel power during the fall of 1941, steam was regularly bumped off 56 and 57. The new diesels brought improved locomotive utilization through shorter servicing times and fewer maintenance requirements. As a result, the Milwaukee began pooling power with the Hiawathas and the Fast Mail. When train 57 arrived in Minneapolis, its power was quickly serviced and placed on the head end of No. 6, the Morning Hiawatha. In Chicago the power for train 101, the Afternoon Hiawatha, had arrived from the Twin Cities on No. 56. Typically, Alco DL109's (Nos. 14A&B) were assigned to trains 101 and 56, while the EMD E6's (Nos. 15A&B) worked trains 6 and 57.

       The years following World War II also brought various changes in power used on the Fast Mail. In 1946, after the 14A&B had battled with the heavy wartime loads, new E7's arrived, relieving these war-weary locomotives. They powered 56 and 57 for the next four years until 1950, when A-B-A sets of EMD FP7's were purchased for Hiawatha service. By 1956, Milwaukee had been breaking up locomotive sets and lashing together EMD and FM units. During that year the road purchased six E9 A-B-A sets and various power lash-ups could be seen. But as the postwar Erie-Builts and E7's grew older and were relegated to shorter runs and suburban service, the FP7's and E9's teamed up to haul the Milwaukee's predominant first-class trains. In 1969 when the road acquired five FP45's (Nos. 1-5) they too made frequent appearances on the Fast Mail.

       Due to the train's predominantly nighttime schedule, my encounters with the Fast Mail were few and quite brief but its presence always brought with it a certain excitement. Perhaps it was the name alone or the famous ancestry of some of its cars or the way the depot at Portage came to life in the dead of night while Milwaukee personnel frantically loaded the RPO's. Whatever it was, Milwaukee Road's 56 and 57 were an on-going railroad tradition that somehow outlived its era. The Fast Mail was a train filled with nostalgia. It certainly lived up to its name...the definitive name for a train entrusted to carry the United States Mail.

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    Above: Lightweight sleepers such as the eight River-series cars were regulars on 56. Represented here by Gallatin River (No. 23), the cars were built in 1948 for the Pioneer Limited. Below: River-series sleepers rode under this type of truck, possessing clasp-type brake shoes.

    Above: 52-seat coaches like No. 500 performed yeoman service for CMStP&P. No. 500 was a graduate of the "class of '48" and originally was intended for the Twin Cities/ Midwest/Chippewa Hiawatha pool. Below: This truck is a disc brake-equipped version of the one pictured on the previous page; the design was standard on 500- and 600-series coaches.

    Many classes of locomotives were entrusted with 56 and 57's schedules, such as EMD FP7A 103C. Note Milwaukee's unique home-built spark arrestors.

    Fairbanks-Morse H16-44 No. 413 is proudly leading 57's train out of Chicago Union Station on a sweltering "frog-strangler" July 1967 afternoon.

    The honorable "one-spot" on the MILW in latter years was held down by none other than EMD 3600-h.p. FP45 No.1, one of five on the roster. Built by La Grange in 1968, the unit was wrecked and summarily scrapped. Her four surviving sisters were transferred into the general freight service pool in early 1970.

    Sleek E7A's likewise occasionally were utilized to expedite the mail and express in addition to the more-familiar E9A's one normally associates with MILW streamliners. - Photo: Louis Marre

    Left: Normally during the steam era, only certain locomotive classes were entrusted to fast, frequent passenger and mail-and-express schedules. Occasionally, emergencies and heavy loads and multiple sections occasioned the use of such classes as the all-purpose S-2 4-8-4, illustrated by No. 216 at Bensenville on June 16, 1938. Photo: D.W. Yungmeyer
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    Modeling the Fast Mail

       Mail and express trains, while often overlooked by modelers, can add a decidedly different, realistic look to a model railroad. Breaking away from the typical passenger train consist of coaches, diners and sleepers, mail and express trains combine cars from many railroads of different styles, lengths and colors. The modeler can assemble a potpourri of his favorite cars to form colorful trains. In addition, mail trains stopped frequently en route picking up and setting out cars, offering the modeler numerous switching scenarios.

       With a large number of cars on the market suitable for mail train service, modeling them is easy. Cars are available to suit anyone's budget, ranging from an Athearn 50-foot express reefer on up to the most expensive brass imports. Insufficient space exists for us to list all cars compatible with mail and express trains. However, a few are worth mentioning, as they were operated on most mail and express trains. Passenger head-end cars are available from Athearn, AHM and others. The best source, which offered the largest variety of equipment was Walthers, but such cars are presently out of production; some hobby shops may still have them in stock. Prototypes for the above cars do exist but they might not prove to be what you are looking for, in which case scratchbuilding, kitbashing or a brass model may be the answer.

       The Railway Express Agency operated a large fleet of express boxcars and express refrigerator cars. A large number of these cars were converted Pullman troop sleepers left idle after World War II. In addition, some railroads (New York Central, Burlington, Rio Grande and Minneapolis & St. Louis among others) purchased troop sleepers for head-end service. Roller Bearing Models offers two versions of the converted troop sleeper appropriate for head-end service. Additional 40- and 50-foot steel cars and a 50-foot wood express car lettered for REA are available from Athearn. Also, Athearn makes other 50-foot cars lettered for express service.

       Modeling the Fast Mail is easier utilizing the great deal of Milwaukee Road passenger equipment that has been produced in brass. Also, the Milwaukee's unique styling of passenger equipment lends itself well to scratchbuilding.

       Milwaukee's 50-foot horizontal-ribbed express cars (Nos. 1600-1624) can be built from Ambroid's 50-foot Milwaukee Road automobile boxcar. Lowering the car's height and adding new doors, express trucks and passenger brake and steam lines are a few of the modifications required. The road's newer 50-foot express cars can be modeled from an Athearn 50-foot box. Quality Craft made a Flexi-van car a few years back (NYC prototype) that would be modified to represent Milwaukee's. One could easily scratchbuild one, placing Athearn containers on top.

       Milwaukee Road coaches and sleepers have been offered by a number of brass importers and are also available in economical kit form by Brass Car Sides. Motive power is easy to represent too, although you might have a problem finding those models - particularly the DL109 - that have been out of production.

       Highly recommended for photos of Milwaukee Road passenger equipment is THE HIAWATHA STORY (Kalmbach, 1970) by Jim Scribbins and also Patrick Dorin's MILWAUKEE ROAD EAST (Superior Publishing).

      EMD E7/E9 Model Power Cast-metal shells from Cary can also be used on Model Power E-unit chassis
      EMD E6 Hallmark, Oriental Cast-metal E6 shell also available from Cary for fit on Model Power chassis
      Alco DL109 Hallmark Out of production
      EMD FP7 Atlas Currently out of production
      F7B Athearn  
      Nos. 1208-1230 Soho,
    Combination express-RPO, but short 5 feet
    Due in 1985
      No. 1132 Nickel Plate Products 1938 express car
      No. 1317 Soho Models are 5 feet shorter than prototype
        Palace Car Company Correct
      Nos. 1330-1336 Palace Car Company Prototype: 1948 Hiawatha, with conductor's room
      No. 2007 Palace Car Company Prototype: 1948 Hiawatha, rebuilt from diners and Touralux sleepers
      No. 1350 Palace Car Company Rebuilt from tap and Touralux cars
      No. 1309 Soho Prototype: 1948 Hiawatha
      No. 4400 Nickel Plate Products Prototype: 1935 Hiawatha
      No. 400 Nickel Plate Products Prototype: 1938 Hiawatha
      No. 454 Palace Car Company Prototype: 1942 Hiawatha
      No. 480 Soho,
    Brass Car Sides
    Prototype: 1948 Hiawatha
      No. 535 Palace Car Company,
    Soho and
    Brass Car Sides
    Prototype: General pool service, built in 1948 with Waukesha
      No. 655 Palace Car Company Same
      10-1-1 Soho Heavyweight, Chief Black Bear
      8-6-4 Palace Car Company,
    Brass Car Sides
    Streamlined River-series car

    Article Details

    • Original Author WILLIAM F. STAUSS
    • Source Prototype Modeler
    • Publication Date August-September 1985

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