Historical Markers
Climax Locomotives Historical Marker
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Climax Locomotives

Lake Erie Region


Marker Location:
PA 77 at S end of Corry

Dedication Date:
May 17, 1987

Behind the Marker

5-mile logging train
5-mile logging train
In the late 1800s, railroads transformed the American timber industry and the American landscape. Comparatively inexpensive to build, narrow-gauge lines enabled timber companies to reach previously inaccessible stands of trees, where they set up portable sawmills that milled the logs on site. These logging railroads opened millions of acres of timber to the axe blade and the saw, mountain forests that previously had been protected by their distance from flowing water.

To extract logs from the deep woods, loggers needed highly specialized and powerful locomotives that could run up and down steep grades, and around sharp curves over hastily laid, temporary tracks. Conventional rod-powered steam locomotives lacked the adhesion to climb steep hills, and their rigid wheelbases couldn't travel on crude track or sharp curves without derailing. A geared logging locomotive was the answer, and three major types evolved: the Climax, built in Corry; the Heisler, built in Erie; and the Shay, built by the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio. Each used a different arrangement of geared power transmission. And their development coincided with the transformation of the lumber industry into a highly mechanized and commercialized business.
After 1880, the introduction of the logging railroad allowed harvesting in previously inaccessible areas. Shown here, logs are loaded onto rail cars by "modern" steam cranes, and transported to saw mills by train.
Loading Logs for the Mills

The Climax locomotive was developed by Pennsylvania lumberman Charles D. Scott, who needed to haul logs from his timberland to a sawmill in Spartansburg, Crawford County. For decades, American lumbermen had depended upon open water to carry logs from the nation's forests to sawmills. Nineteenth-century loggers who floated the huge trunks of Pennsylvania's virgin trees down the Susquehanna River made Pennsylvania the nation's largest producer of lumber, with markerWilliamsport as its capital.

Scott had no river or stream to float his trees in, but he did have an idea. He designed and built his own locomotive to haul his logs to town via a tram road. To make the engine frame smaller - and thus more maneuverable on small tracks -Scott tipped the boiler upright, then connected his two-vertical-cylinder engine to the axle through a two-speed gear arrangement with a horizontal driveshaft that gave his locomotive tremendous power.

Scott's homemade locomotive was an odd-looking contraption, but it worked well on his tram railroad. In 1888, he approached the Climax Manufacturing Co. of Corry, Erie County, proposing that the firm manufacture the engine commercially. The simplicity of design made it inexpensive to build, and the Class A Climax engine soon found an eager market among lumbermen who appreciated its ruggedness, power, and ease of repair. The U.S. Patent Office issued a patent for the design, but not to Scott; Scott's brother-in-law, civil engineer George D. Gilbert, had handled the filing and the patent was listed in his name alone. Scott ended up suing both Gilbert and an employee of Climax to re-establish ownership, which the courts affirmed in 1892.
Interior of Climax factory, showing locomotives.
Interior of Climax factory

Lumber companies could purchase their Climax Class A with three types of wheels: concave wheels with double flanges to run on track built from rough-hewn logs; geared wheels for traction on wooden rails; and conventional flanged wheels for steel-rail track. Eventually, the company dropped its other farm and oil-industry machinery to concentrate on logging locomotives, and changed its name to Climax Locomotive Works.

A demand for larger, more powerful engines led to the introduction in 1893 of the twenty-five-ton Class B Climax locomotive, and the fifty-ton Class C locomotive in 1897. Both of these types resembled conventional-looking engines with a horizontal boiler, but used inclined cylinders. Eventually, the company built a wide array of sizes and types, ranging in weight from seven tons to one hundred tons.

In its forty years of operation, the Climax plant in Corry built more than one thousand locomotives, used primarily by mining companies, brick yards, agricultural plantations, and other specialized rail operations around the world. In the 1920s, however, trucks began to make geared logging locomotives obsolete. In 1928, Climax owners sold the company to the General Parts Corporation, an automotive parts business that provided replacement parts for the locomotives but had no intention of manufacturing them.
Print ad for Heisler Locomotives
Print ad for Heisler Locomotives

Climax locomotives can still be seen in Pennsylvania at the Corry Area Historical Museum and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania at Strasburg. Shay engines (2,761 were built from 1880-1945) can be seen at the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum and at the Railroad Museum. A Heisler (625 were built from 1891 to 1941) can be seen at the Railroad Museum. Operable Climaxes can be seen in California, New Hampshire, Washington, West Virginia, and Australia.

The production of Climax locomotives and other geared engines was a blessing to loggers. But the forest access provided in part by these gear engines resulted in the devastation of Pennsylvania's last old-growth forests - stands of white pine, Eastern hemlock, and mixed hardwoods that once covered an estimated 90 percent of Pennsylvania. Loggers clear-cut and then abandoned these forests in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating what foresters and conservationists later called the "Pennsylvania Desert."
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