Preserving New Jerseys Railway Heritage since 1965

Steam Locomotive No. 385

Near the end of her SR days, she would be called to pull everything from local “branchline freights” and “mixed trains” (freight and passenger cars combined) through the rural Dixie landscape of the Southern’s “Richmond Division” where she worked from Richmond, VA (her home base) through East Durham and Raleigh, NC, and also down past Charlotte, NC on into Spartanburg, SC.

In November 1952 the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway (VBR) of Piney River, VA purchased No. 385 and renumbered it as their No. 6. After only 4 years of operation, the VBR took the locomotive out of service in November 1956 due to the need for an extensive re-fluing of the boiler, as well as a dwindling supply of spare parts. Officially retired by the VBR on April 1, 1959, the old engine was due to be scrapped, but in 1963, she was rescued (for the first of two times over the next 36 years) by the late Earle H. Gil, Sr.

Gil came up with the idea of restoring one of the magnificent steam locomotives of the past to full operation for excursion use in New Jersey. After acquiring No. 6 from the VBR, Gil had it shipped to Morristown, NJ where he completely overhauled the locomotive in an incredible 3 months time. His excursion line was named the Morris County Central Railroad (MCC), and would begin operating on May 9, 1965 with the restored 385 leading the first train. Based out of Whippany, NJ and running over the tracks of the Morristown & Erie Railroad from 1965 until 1973, Gil moved the MCC to Newfoundland, NJ in 1974, where his trains ran over an unused portion of the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad (NYS&W). The economics of the 1970’s were hard on the MCC and the line went out of business at the end of 1980.

Throughout the 15-year life of the MCC, No. 385 could be found pulling excursion riders, many of whom had never encountered a live, operating steam engine.

Two notable events in the life of No. 385 occurred within just a few short years of one another. In 1969, the town of Summit, NJ celebrated its 100th anniversary. On April 12th, in cooperation with the Erie Lackawanna Railway (EL) , a huge celebration was held, including a parade which concluded at the railroad station, where thousands of celebrants were greeted by the sights and sounds of No. 385, gleaming proudly in a fresh coat of paint; the Morris County Central name emblazoned on her tender flanks. Throughout the day she made a big impression on the railroaders and Summit’s denizens alike. At speeds which at times topped 50 miles per hour, No. 385 pranced along the EL’s Gladstone Branch hauling six “Boonton” cars provided by the Erie Lackawanna. Surprisingly, it was a perfectly matched set of coaches, freshly painted and lettered “Lackawanna” for the occasion. The train was packed on each of the six special excursions operated that day, and a literal mass of humanity crowded every stretch of track between Summit and Berkeley Heights to witness the historic event. No. 385 was the first steam locomotive to operate under her own power over any portion of the Erie Lackawanna’s huge New York-to-Chicago system since the (predecessor) Lackawanna Railroad had dropped the fires on its last steam locomotive in 1952. Unquestionably, No. 385 gave her finest performance on this day, and the commanding voice of her whistle could be heard for miles around. An untold amount of photographs must have been taken of the 62-year old locomotive during the event, but the most memorable shot had to be the black and white image made by Edwill H. Brown, which for years afterward would grace many of the Morris County Central’s print ads and brochures.

Photo Credit: Edwill H. Brown

On August 1, 1971, No. 385 was steamed up for the first time after several months of extensive repairs and heavy work that also included a brand new paint job. Mindful of 385’s Southern Railway heritage, it was decided in the early-Summer of ’71 to paint the locomotive in the Southern’s traditional passenger locomotive scheme of apple green and gold, with silver trim. In honor of MCC engineer Charles Barrett’s long railroad career (he had retired after 48 years with the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western R.R. and the Erie-Lackawanna), No. 385 was to be named after him. Barrett’s signature was applied to the engineer’s side of the cab, and a celebration was held at Whippany. On that humid first day of August, Charles Barrett’s name was unveiled to a large gathering consisting of his family, friends, MCC employees, and management of the Erie Lackawanna. This event showed in a small way, the MCC’s deep respect and affection for the gentleman who had a genuine love of railroading, and a profound concern for the people around him. Whenever Charlie was at the throttle, timepieces could be set by his skillful handling of the train. Charlie was with the MCC for five years, and never missed a day. When he retired once again in the Fall of 1974, there was a great sadness in the Morris County Central family.

No. 385 continued to wear her colorful Southern Railway passenger scheme (in several variations) until the Fall of 1977, when she once again, reverted back to her all-black, freight hauling colors.

On October 14, 1978, No. 385 made her final run for the Morris County Central and was reluctantly taken out of service at age 71. She was in need of major repairs that the MCC could not afford at that time. She has not been under steam since.

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