Steam Locomotive No. 385

Whippany Railway Museum Receives Donation of Steam Locomotive No. 385’s Original 1907 Builder’s Plate !

In July 2013, the Whippany Railway Museum received a very significant donation of the original 1907 Baldwin Locomotive Works builder’s plate for our former Southern Railway Steam Locomotive No. 385 (ex-Virginia Blue Ridge Railway No. 6; exx-Morris County Central No. 385)… the “birth certificate” of the locomotive, if you will.

By very good fortune, this 1907 builder’s plate has been gifted to the Museum by Thomas ‘Sid’ Mann, III of Sarasota, FL. Sid, (who for most of his adult life lived in Athol, Massachusetts), was the proprietor of Mann Lumber in that town for many years. Sid felt it most important to reunite the plate with the same locomotive it was cast for so long ago, and happily, that desire came to fruition.

Mr. Mann stated: “My initial contact with the Museum revolved around a purchase of the builders plate. However, further email discussions with Steve Hepler [WRyM president] culminated in gifting it to the museum. When I bought it in 1989 I thought it only as a relic of a long past era. Imagine my surprise that the locomotive was still in existence! (Thanks, Google!) I am happy that it is back where it belongs. Given my interest in RR preservation and education it was an easy decision after a little thought. I did retain visitation rights and look forward to seeing the Museum some day. New Jersey is fortunate to have such an asset preserving the past and educating future generations. I do some volunteer work at the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish, Florida, and whenever I hear a train whistle or horn, I wish I was on it! I am happy to share my enthusiasm for trains with children whenever possible no matter where I am.”

A bit of a back-story…

VBR 6 at Piney River, VA, circa-1953
Kermit Geary, Sr. photo

In September 1958 a Maine resident, the late Chandler Cobb (who at the time, had set up a small railroad museum in his garage) wrote a letter to the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway asking if he could purchase a builder’s plate from one of the VBR steam engines for his growing collection of railroadiana. The VBR surprised Cobb by not only giving him the plate from No. 6, but they shipped it to him free of charge in January 1959. At the time, No. 6 had been set aside for eventual scrapping (which thankfully, never occurred !).

One has to wonder whatever became of the second Baldwin builder’s plate (each locomotive carried two builder’s plates – one on each side of the smokebox), as VBR had only one to send to Cobb, and when Earle Gil purchased the locomotive in 1963, it had no plates at all. Perhaps someone on the VBR wanted one of the plates for a keepsake, or maybe they sent one to an acquaintance on the nearby Southern Railway.

When Earle Gil was in the process of purchasing the engine, he asked VBR management about the builder’s plates. They provided Gil with Chandler Cobb’s address and other info, and Earle had hopes of purchasing the plate, but it was not to be. Chandler Cobb refused to sell the plate to Earle, and wanted no part of allowing Earle to borrow it to make a plaster mold in order to cast replica plates. Earle did prevail and Cobb very reluctantly allowed Gil to make the molds. But Cobb was extremely worried that Earle would not return the original, or that the original would be harmed or destroyed in the mold making process. He didn’t rest until the plate was finally back in his hands.

All the years that No. 385 operated on the Morris County Central, she wore the cast replica plates. Today, at Whippany, 385 sits on display wearing newer replica plates that were fabricated in 2008. Out of the two “original” 1963 replicas…one remains for display…while the other has been missing since the early-1980’s. The mold Earle had made was destroyed in one of the many arson attacks the MCC suffered in 1976.

Fast forward to February 4, 1989 when Sid Mann purchased the plate at a New Hampshire auction. How the plate came to be auctioned off is a bit of a mystery but one might assume that Chandler Cobb (who passed away on February 9, 1999 at 79 years of age) either had financial or health issues, forcing a sale of his railroad collection.

WRyM President Steve Hepler holds the original
1907 Baldwin Locomotive Works Builder’s Plate for Locomotive No. 385
July 14, 2013

Sid sent an initial e-mail to the Whippany Railway Museum in October 2012. After a number of e-mails and phone conversations, nearly five-and-one-half decades after the builder’s plate was removed from No. 385, the historic artifact was at last reunited with the locomotive.

The world being what it is, the original 1907 plate will NOT be affixed to No. 385… Instead, the plate will be displayed for all to admire within the Museum’s exhibit on 385, Earle Gil and the locomotive’s connection to her Southern Railway and Virginia Blue Ridge Railway heritage.

Everyone who appreciates historic preservation owes Sid Mann a tremendous show of gratitude. It must have been difficult for him to part with the plate, but what he did was a truly wonderful gesture of graciousness on his part.

Thank You, Sid !

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