Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, July 20, 2020

Supplying Locomotives for the AEF

A Surviving General Pershing Locomotive

By James Patton

From the outset it was apparent that the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) would have to build its own logistical network in France; up to 25,000 tons of material would be arriving every day, and by war’s end over eight million tons had been shipped to the AEF. Port facilities had to be built or improved at Brest, St. Nazaire, Nantes, Bordeaux, Rouen, Rochefort, La Pallice, Bayonne, Le Havre, and Marseilles. It was also clear that the French rail system wouldn’t be able to move the AEF and its logistical tail around the country. Among other things, they were very short of locomotives. The necessary solution was to bring American railroad equipment to France.

The Baldwin Locomotive Works was contracted to supply 1,500 locomotives, and after testing and acceptance these had to then be disassembled and crated for shipment, a process which took several days. Even with economies of scale, as all of the units were identical 2-8-0 engines, inevitably called "The General Pershing" Class, there were serious delays in reassembling them in France. At first the average time to get a disassembled locomotive in operation after arrival was 33 days, but this increased due to the large number being received and the inevitable mixing up of crates.

This problem landed in the lap of Samuel Morse Felton Jr. (1853–1930), who had been appointed the director-general of military railways. He was the son of a pioneer railroad builder, an 1873 graduate of the predecessor of MIT, and had spent his life in American railroading, finishing as the head of the Chicago Great Western Railroad.

A Services of Supply Crew Preparing a Locomotive in France

It became apparent that the best solution would be to ship the locomotives fully assembled.  Felton had the tonnage market searched for single deck ships with large open holds and at least four hatches of sufficient size to admit locomotives that were 35 feet, 8 inches long and 9 feet wide. They found four ore carriers of the same class, two of which were recently completed and two under construction by the Bethlehem  Shipyard. These ships were:

  • SS Feltore, which later ran aground in Chile in 1930,
  • SSSantore, which was sunk by a mine laid by U-701 on 17 June 1942,
  • SS Cubore, which was torpedoed and sunk by UB-107 on 15 August 1918, outward bound in the Bay of Biscay, and
  • SS Firmore, postwar history unknown.

They found a derrick at Sparrows Point, Maryland, capable of dead-lifting the 75.5-ton locomotives. The first shipment was loaded on the Feltore on 30 April 1918.

Loading a Locomotive onto SS Feltore

Thirty-three locomotives and their tenders, essentially ready for steam, were placed in the hold of the Feltore, with bales of hay wedged around them to keep them from shifting. The shipment arrived at St. Nazaire without incident.

By this means, the time required in getting a locomotive in operation after its arrival in France was reduced to eight hours.

The Collier SS Santore Was Perfect for Carrying Locomotives

Later an improved stowage plan made it possible to load 36 locomotives and tenders in the holds of these four vessels, and Felton’s staff requisitioned another 12 ships capable of holding the units on their wheels, although not as many as in the ore carriers.

Today there are two (possibly three) of the General Pershing locomotives left and only one is operational. During WWI this particular unit was used in the Army’s marshaling yards in New Jersey and today runs as a tourist attraction between Rusk and Palestine in Texas.

Source:  Kansas Centennial Committee Website, 14 March 2018

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