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Nostalgic Journeys - The Pride of Minersville

Nov 16, 2015 12:38PM ● Published by Erica Shames

Reading & Northern engineer Christopher Bost moves #113 in Minersville.

Gallery: Nostalgic Journeys Winter 2015 [6 Images] Click any image to expand.

Minersville, Pa., has seen better days.  In the 19th century, three Class 1 railroads built lines to the Schuylkill County borough – not through it, but to it, to reach nearby mines and breakers.  After the anthracite industry crashed, Minersville’s population fell to less than half of its 1930 peak.  First the Lehigh Valley Railroad and then the Pennsylvania Railroad abandoned their tracks through town (in 1942 and 1966, respectively), and the Reading became part of Conrail, which tore up one of the two main tracks and numerous branches.  By the early 1990s, Conrail too wanted out, selling its “Anthracite Cluster” to the new Reading & Northern short line.

Save a locomotive

Unjacketed engine: #113 sits on display in Schuykill Haven on her first public day out.

Born in Minersville in 1940, Robert E. Kimmel, Sr., loved steam trains from an early age.  He earned a pharmacist’s degree and later a Ph.D. while commuting weekly by train from Pottsville to Philadelphia, and then raised a family in Minersville and became a volunteer steam locomotive engineer at the Wanamaker, Kempton & Southern tourist railroad north of Reading.

Built in 1923 for the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) (once a significant anthracite carrier), heavy 0-6-0 switcher #113 migrated to the Locust Summit, Pa., breaker when the CNJ dieselized in the early 1950s.  There she ran until 1960, moving hopper cars loaded with the same coal she burned.  For more than 25 years after the breaker’s closure, #113 sat outdoors, periodically attracting the attention of railroad buffs, among them Bob Kimmel.  In 1986, Reading Anthracite donated the engine to a nonprofit in Delaware that intended to restore #113 for service on the Wilmington & Western tourist railroad.  Those plans never came to fruition, and in 1990 the engine moved back to Pennsylvania, under the ownership of Bob Kimmel. 

'Thank God we’re at the end'

Bob Kimmel Jr., working on
the fireman’s side steam
chest while fitting sheet-metal
jacketing on the locomotive.

Very sadly, Kimmel died in 2006, before he could see 113 run again, but his son, Bob Jr., had worked alongside his father for many years, and under his leadership the nonprofit project continued.  From the time restoration began in earnest in 1999, it took 13 years, tens of thousands of volunteer hours, and more than $600,000 (raised through grants and donations); in 2012 #113 moved under her own power for the first time in half a century.  The work included a staggering range of tasks, from replacement of steel firebox and boiler sheets to fabrication of an entirely new tender superstructure. 

Flexible stay bolts in the boiler join the inner and outer wrapper sheets, making the space in which water heats and boils to steam; Project 113 removed and replaced more than 900 stay bolts.  Many other small parts had long since disappeared by the time Bob Kimmel bought the engine; the project bought some replacements and made many others.  Parts got cast in iron, steel, bronze and brass—everything from brake shoes and firebox grates to the three-chime whistle, all cast from wooden patterns newly made to match the original blueprints.  The dozens of volunteers who brought the engine back to life ranged in age from teens to octogenarians, their names too numerous to list here.

“Thank God we’re at the end, because if we had to start all over now, I don’t think we could do it,” admitted Bob Kimmel Jr., president of Railway Restoration Project 113.  “It’s just incredible, the amount of hours in a steam locomotive restoration. It’s all labor intensive, so everything you do, even the smallest job, is hours of work.

“When this locomotive came in, it was totally stripped down,” he continued. All we had was the boiler, wheels and frame—that was it. So we started from scratch.”

Where do we go from here?

Railway Restoration Project 113 owns and maintains the engine; Project 113 leases the Minersville station, and the track on which #113 lives, from the Reading & Northern.  A few times a year, volunteers fill the engine with water, build a fire in the firebox and raise 185 pounds per square inch of steam pressure.  With close cooperation from the R&N, and pulling the R&N’s own restored coaches, #113 powers passenger trains to Schuylkill Haven: in the spring, the Easter Bunny rides along, while in the fall Santa and Mrs. Claus swing aboard.  This year the holiday train rides take place on December 6 and 20. More information is at RRProject113.org. Volunteers and funds are always needed.

In a town that needs good news, residents have rallied around #113.  In September 2013, the engine made her first solo trip away from Minersville under steam, spending a day in Schuylkill Haven: on her return that evening, more than 50 townspeople greeted her at the station with a standing ovation.

Story and photos by Oren B. Helbok, who directs the non-profit Moose Exchange in Bloomsburg; he has photographed steam trains since 1972.

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