(From an original 11″ x 17″ Pen & Ink drawing I created on December 11, 1982
for my personal Christmas cards that year, three decades ago. —Nate Clark)
Before the waters of Lake Erie freeze in winter, there is a dramatic bit of Mother Nature’s meteorological mischief that that great body of water can trigger. People residing along Erie’s southern perimeter refer to these regional storms — less than affectionately — as “Lake Effect”. Dry, arctic winds sweeping across the open expanses between Erie’s shores draw up massive quantities of moisture from the warmer lake. This great burden is transplanted inland in dark, brooding clouds and then dumped onto the Snow Belt Region stretching from New York State through northern Pennsylvania and into Ohio.
The New York Central Railroad frequently had to contend with such wintry conditions on its main line along Lake Erie’s southern shore. On this route, the Central’s famous Twentieth Century Limited was, for many decades, the flagship of the company’s renowned passenger train fleet. It ranked high as the preferred conveyance between New York and Chicago for business leaders, movie stars, dignitaries and other famous people in the days before jetliners.
A premier train required premium power, and during the mid-1940s, the NYC acquired a fleet of 27 ultra-modern steam locomotives to propel ‘The Century’ and other important trains. Named for the powerful waterfalls they emulated, each of the the 411-ton NYC Niagara-class locomotives produced more than 6,000 horsepower and could gallop at speeds into the triple digits, when necessary.
Nighttime in Lake Erie’s basin is giving way to a feeble winter dawn east of Conneaut, OH in 1949 as one of those mighty Niagaras has her “ears pinned back” like a racehorse, leaning through a gentle curve with exhaust steam raking sharply back over the train. Rugged, yet fine-tuned machinery is straining heroically to ‘make up’ lost time on the train’s schedule in the approaching face of a howling Lake Effect snow squall near the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line.
Though the holiday travelers aboard the Pullman cars chasing the engine’s tender may have little hope of being into Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station on time on this trip, the crew members in the cab of engine #6024 are still doing their utmost to make the schedule shortfall “off the advertised” as small as possible. You can bet that urgent messages have been sent down the adjacent telegraph lines toward Cleveland and Toledo to have the route along the four-track, water-level main line cleared of slower trains to let the tardy westbound Century flash by.