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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Recreating Large Locomotives On A Smaller Scale

J.M. Kahle
Chuck Balmer with his Allegheny Locomotive

Today on Culture Couch, we have an unlikely story about a local man who built a working replica of a famous steam engine.  The Allegheny Locomotive was among the largest and most powerful locomotives ever built.  It was used to haul coal in the mountains of West Virginia for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroads in the 1940s and 50s. Community voices producer Jim Kahle met the man who's made a small scale replica of a very large train.

A live steam engine no mater the scale is impressive in all manners. It breaths, roars and snorts it sings a mechanical song and strains in an effort to serve its master it feels alive yet it is man made, an industrial Frankenstein. The definitive example is the Allegheny class stream locomotive, built in Lima Ohio with more then 6500 horsepower it is one of the most powerful and beautiful steam locomotives ever.

"I fell in love with that engine in high school. We went over to the Henry Ford Museum and I saw this engine for the first time and it just blew me away. I saw it again I thought boy that’s the engine I want to build and that’s how I got stated on this one," says Chuck Balmer from Urbana Ohio, an unassuming man with an impressive skill set. I visited his shop to talk about building his Allegheny, a working  steam locomotive scaled 3/4 inch to the foot. Complete in every detail.

Credit Jim Balmer
The Allegheny Locomotive replica head on

"I worked on this full time for 7 years, so we figure we got roughly 14000 hours into building this engine," he says.  "I wouldn’t have started if I’d thought this much time was involved.  The engine and ender are 8 ft long and they about weigh 350 pounds. [There are] thousands and thousands of parts in fact there the patterns for the castings that we made. There’s over 100 castings in the engine and tender. There 60 some patterns."

Chuck starts with some raw material, creating his own castings in his own foundry.

"[I] weld up the pieces that need to be welded up or cut, whatever and move it over there to the machining area. Do all the machining whatever is needed there. Use the paint area to paint the parts that need to be painted or plated or whatever. Hopefully we can assemble it, put it together and put it in the other side of the shop which is where the locomotives are stored." 

After a few hours  Chuck invited me to attend a meeting of the ‘Cinder Sniffers,”  a steam club with their own tracks and coal fired trains.   

The train park is a busy place, more then a dozen  locomotives and their engineers are giving rides to family and friends.   I took the opportunity to speak with Chuck's wife Julie and Peggy Hodgson to help me understand the task Chuck had undertaken and gain a little insight into the hobby.

It’s a process," says Julie Balmer. "He is very good at taking a large project and breaking it into little pieces and that way all you have to accomplish is one little piece at a time. And that’s how you build a 14000 hours engine is one hour at a time."

Peggy Hodgson says people get dreamy around these trains, "That’s what went through their back yard, they stood back as a kid and felt the whoosh go by. That’s what makes it a wonderful animal. It is engineering art. There is something about trains that are just, they touch part of you that nothing else touches."

After a day immersed in the sights and sound of live steam trains the aromas of hot oil and coal fired boilers  still clinging to my cloths I make my way home grateful for the Chuck Balmers of the world.