Kevin’s Komment 07/27/2023


I’ve done three different studies involving geared steam locomotives over the past 2 years – 4 truck Shays, Davenports, and Climaxes. Of the three main geared steamers – Shays, Climaxes, and Heislers, the Heislers were probably the most efficient.

This somewhat unusual Heisler got me started. It’s obviously a two-truck unit with a unique saddle tank (I believe) over the front of the boiler. This is Northern Pacific #4 built in 1907 by Heisler.

Charles L. Heisler designed and built the first Heisler steam locomotive in 1891, roughly a decade or more later than Climaxes and Shays. But to look at the beginning of the Heislers, it helps to take a quick glance at another geared steamer – the Dunkirk-Gilbert. This pic is of a Dunkirk Iron Works (Dunkirk, NY) geared steam locomotive probably built around 1882. These 7-8 ton locomotives were called a “Grasshoppers”. Dunkirk was a small operation centered on supplying small geared locomotives for industrial applications – industrial switchers. This Dunkirk has a vertical boiler and two vertical cylinders that drive a drive shaft geared to the two fixed axles. The design is similar to the original Climax.

If you recall from our study of Climaxes, George Gilbert was the brother-in-law of Charles D. Scott – the inventor of the Climax. Since at the time, Gilbert was in the engineering department at Climax Manufacturing Co., Scott sent his plans for the Climax to Gilbert. The Climax was then originally patented by Gilbert, and Climax built the first Climaxes. Dunkirk Iron Works produced a few of the Grasshoppers (unrelated to the Climax other than being a similar design) during the early 1880’s, but they end up going into receivership in 1885. In 1888, operations resumed under the company name of Dunkirk Engineering Company. (There’s also ties to the Brooks Locomotive Works in Dunkirk, NY.) Gilbert ends up involved with the Dunkirk Engineering Co., hence there becomes a direct relationship between Dunkirk and the Climax design. This pic shows a Dunkirk-Gilbert that uses the Climax patents under Gilbert’s name to produce a geared locomotive similar to the Grasshopper with a vertical boiler and two vertical cylinders, but the drive shaft now powers two independent trucks like the Climax. This is called a Dunkirk-Gilbert Class A. It’s essentially a powered flatcar with a water tank on the rear. They often called this model a “pill box” because the water tank resembled a pill box of the late 1800’s.

The Dunkirk-Gilbert took another evolutionary step with the Class B model.  Here’s a pic of a Class B.  The boiler has been turned horizontal and the cylinders – not visible because they’re inside the cab – are placed in a “V” shape.

This is where Charles Heisler enters into the story. Heisler was a personal assistant of Dunkirk Engineering’s president Edward Nichols. (BTW – Edward Nichols was the son-in-law of Horatio Brooks, and ran the Brooks Locomotive Works after Brooks’ death – hence the tie to Brooks.) Besides being the assistant to the company president, Heisler was also an engineer for Dunkirk. He took the Dunkirk-Gilbert Model B and moved the V cylinders outside the cab and below the boiler. The V angles are set at 45 degrees. Then he ties the axles on each truck together via side rods. The drive train powers the farthest axle of the trucks allowing the universal to sit directly under the bolster pin – hence the trucks can swivel and rotate much more freely. The first Heisler is born when Heisler files a patent in 1891, and Dunkirk manufacturers the first test unit in 1891-1892. Here’s a pic of that first Heisler.

Unfortunately, Dunkirk Engineering was not much more successful than Dunkirk Iron Works. Heisler left the employment of Dunkirk in 1892, shortly before Dunkirk closed its doors. (Nichols died in 1892 – not sure if this had anything to do with the closing.) Stearns Manufacturing Co. of Erie, PA picked up the design of the Heisler in 1894. West Side Lumber employed several Heislers built by Stearns. Here’s #3, built in 1899.

This is a great pic of #3.

This is #3 likely in the early ‘60s, still moving lumber for West Side

On December 4, 1963 West Side Lumber Co. CMO, Ed Sullivan, carefully backed West Side #3 Heisler on to a flat car for shipment to a new life pulling tourists on the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge RR. Here’s a pic of former #3 at its new home. It’s still operating for the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad in Felton, CA, over 120 years after it was built!

Here’s West Side Lumber Co. #1 – also built by Stearns in 1899

West Side Lumber Co. #2 found a home as a static display in the West Side Memorial Park.

Like the Shay and Climax, Charles Heisler designed a 3-truck version of his steamer.  The 60-ton Heisler in this illustration was used on the McCloud River Rail Road in California. When fully loaded it had a working speed of five to seven miles per hour (a little faster than its Shay and Climax competitors). This locomotive was made by Stearns Manufacturing.

By 1904 Stearns had quit manufacturing the Heisler because of a decline in sales. And because of the 1907 economic panic, Stearns was forced into bankruptcy. Part of the reorganization was the renaming of the company to Heisler Locomotive Works. The Heisler Locomotive Works restarted the production of Heisler locomotives, and continued until 1941 – long after production of Shays and Climaxes stopped. Weyerhaeuser Timber Co #101 was built by Heisler in 1928.

If you haven’t noticed by this point, Heislers were designed to meet the unique needs of lumber companies. This is Washington Timber and Lumber Co. #1 at Highland Park, Washington, built by Heisler in 1906 – Std. gauge – 37 tons – 2 trucks.

Heislers had great tractive effort – this photo shows a two truck Heisler pulling loaded cars up a 1/10 grade!

They could round curves at a 76’ radius! – For those of us that are HO modelers, in scale that’s a 10.5” radius curve!  Here’s Woodinville Lumber Co. #101 rounding a much wider curve.  #101 was built by Heisler in 1907 – Std. gauge – 37 tons – 2 trucks.  #101 operated near Woodinville, Washington.  Photo credit: King County Museum Collection @ University of Washington Library

The Heislers were more efficient, had better tractive effort, and could reach higher speeds than their counterpart Shays and Climaxes.  But because they were around a decade later in reaching the market, and the manufacturers had a series of economic issues, their numbers sold don’t quite approach the numbers of the other two.  Wisconsin Logging & Timber Co. #1 is near Stella Washington, built by Heisler in 1910 – Std gauge – 60 tons – 2 trucks.  The photo is from the Washington State Archives, John T. Labbe Collection.

Here’s a restored 3-truck Heisler that runs at the Cass Scenic Railroad.

One of the interesting features of the Heislers came from the earlier Dunkirks. They’re essentially locomotives built on flatcars. Here’s two pics of the chassis of a Heisler. While the flatcar appearance of the chassis drifts away, you can see that the framing remains the same as a beefed up flatcar.

This “flatcar” chassis allows the boiler and cab to be easily removed while the cylinders, drive train, and trucks remain as part of the chassis.

Even more interesting and novel is that the “V” arrangement of the cylinders permits the ready withdrawal and replacement of the unit without disturbing any other part of the locomotive. It is bolted to the main frame, free of the boiler barrel, with universal couplings between engine and drive shaft. Hence, maintenance was much easier than typical steamers.

This pic probably looks familiar because it is similar to the drive of the Climax except…the side rods tie the two axles on the truck together rather than separate gearing (or no power to one axle). Also, note that the drive gear is tied to the outer axle allowing for the universal pivot point directly below the center of the truck. When I first looked at this photo, I wondered about the circular pipe clamp mounted near the lower front of each wheel on the near axle. Showing my true ignorance on the topic – I was stumped for about a day. Then, I realized these are clamps to hold the sanding pipes near the front of the wheels!

Here’s a typical 2-truck Heisler with its crew – date and location unknown.

These two photos show a locomotive built by Heisler that was one of the last built – 1940.  #1 was built for Wood, Alan Steel Co. – unknown gauge – 47 tons – 2 trucks.  It’s unique in that it’s a fireless steamer.  A large pressure tank replaces the boiler – the tank is filled with pressurized steam.  This is the only known fireless Heisler, but it wasn’t uncommon to have fireless steam switchers in areas where chemicals or dust made fired locos a hazard.  Most of these fireless steamers could run an hour or two on a tank of steam. 

One thing I noted on this Heisler – they went to horizontal cylinders driving a transfer gear to the drive shaft.  So while built by Heisler, it’s not realizing the efficiency of the V cylinder direct drive.  Instead, it’s copying more closely the drive of a Climax.  The first pic gives us an idea of how sharp a radius the Heislers could round.  The second pic shows the tank being recharged with steam.  Credit for these photos go to the collection of F. Clayton Snyder, and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania (in order).

Even though Heisler locomotives were discontinued in 1941, there was an order for an Heisler in 1943 by the Ogilvie and Co. sawmill in New Zealand.  The order was fulfilled in 1944 by A&G Price (a loco manufacturer in Thames, New Zealand).  The resulting locomotive followed the typical Heisler design with the addition of a Belpaire firebox.  The locomotive served its owner for 17 years and is now in restored order at the Canterbury Steam Preservation Society’s track at McLeans Island.  With this loco being built 3 years after the last Heisler, it may well have been the last geared steam logging locomotive built in the world.

So while Heislers took third seat in numbers of the geared steamers, they took advantage of their later entry into the market by both borrowing designs and improving on the efficiencies of the designs.  I’ve always thought of the Climaxes as my favorite geared loco, but the Shays and Heislers are less than a hair behind.  Part of this study in Heislers presented how closely tied locomotive development was in the industry.  Special thanks to the website Geared Steam Locomotive Works (link: ).  I’ve used them a couple times in the past and really enjoy their site.



Total Page Visits: 6911 - Today Page Visits: 1


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.