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New York Central 4-6-4 “Hudson” No. 5344 in four photos

By Robert S McGonigal | May 27, 2021

Classic Trains explores the history of a rare steam passenger engine that helped lead the way in streamlining.

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Streamlined 4-6-4 steam locomotive

New York Central’s 275 4-6-4 Hudson-type engines are among the most celebrated of all steam locomotive classes. As the top passenger power of one of the most passenger-oriented railroads from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, the J-1, J-2, and J-3 classes were in the public eye like few other groups of engines. That they powered the famous 20th Century Limited (“the world’s greatest train”) would be enough to ensure them a place in history. No wonder Lionel’s postwar J-1 was one of the best-selling toy trains of all time. Adding to the Hudsons’ mythic status is the tragic fact that not one of them was saved for posterity, making them the most notable locomotives to have vanished without a trace.

One member of the Hudson clan — J-1 No. 5344 — stands out from the rest. Four photos from the Kalmbach Media files tell its story.

NYC 5344: As built

4-6-4 steam locomotive
Hudson 5344 poses for a broadside builder’s photo at American Locomotive Co.’s Schenectady plant in November 1931. She was the last-built member of the J-1e subclass, and one of only two J-1 engines with roller bearings on her driving axles. The streamlining of railroad equipment was still three years in the future.
New York Central

NYC 5344: 1934 streamlining

Streamlined 4-6-4 steam locomotive
In February 1934, the same month Union Pacific’s M-10000 motor train introduced streamlining to American railroading, NYC Equipment Engineering Department staffer Carl F. Kantola designed a cowling for one of his road’s J-1 4-6-4s. That November, NYC’s newest Hudson, No. 5344, happened to be in West Albany Shops, and was selected to receive Kantola’s treatment. The result was America’s first streamlined steam locomotive. Though it bore the name Commodore Vanderbilt, the engine displayed no road number.
Glenn Grabill Jr.

NYC 5344: 1939 streamlining

Streamlined 4-6-4 steam locomotive
In 1939, No. 5344 traded its Kantola-designed shroud for a streamlined treatment created by noted industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. The previous year, Dreyfuss designed an all-new 20th Century Limited, from J-3a Hudson to boat-tailed observation car. Ten J-3a’s got the dashing Dreyfuss styling for Century work; the 5344 was the only J-1 so treated, and it was assigned to the Mercury. In another distinction, 5344 was the first steam locomotive to be streamlined twice. (Only one other engine would share this honor: Baltimore & Ohio 5304, streamlined in 1937 for the Royal Blue and again in 1947 for the Cincinnatian.)
New York Central

NYC 5344: Scrap line

Streamlined 4-6-4 steam locomotive
NYC 5344 eventually lost its streamlining altogether. It took its place in the scrap line at Collinwood, Ohio, in 1954 looking like any other standard engine, with only its rakish disc drivers to give away its two spells in the spotlight.
Herbert H. Harwood
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