During his career John Wilks has been a composer of avant-garde music, conductor with the English National Opera and a music academic at Durham University. Over the past 24 years he has spent his spare time building a working scale model of a New York Central Niagara steam locomotive. John had always made things as a boy, and at University he became interested in metalworking, which gave him a good grounding for building a locomotive.
John chose to build a model of the Niagara because its elegant appearance appealed to him. He has never actually seen a full-size Niagara locomotive as he has never travelled to the USA where they were produced. Only 27 were ever built, the last one being scrapped in 1956. They were impressive locomotives, producing enormous power at speed and moving 1000-ton express passenger trains at 100 miles an hour between New York and Chicago.
John started building his model, which is at a scale of two and a quarter inches to a foot, in Autumn 1974 from drawings which came from the New York Central Historical Society. He maintains that building a locomotive isn’t difficult, but is very time consuming. It also involves lots of commitment and stamina, much like composing an opera.
Dropping the Fire: The Decline and Fall of the Steam Locomotive by Philip Atkins, due to be published by Irwell Press in April/May 1999. This book has a chapter on the Niagara locomotive.
New York Central’s Later Power 1910-1968 by Alvin F. Staufer and Edward L. May, published by Alvin F. Staufer, 1981. Out of print, but may be available from libraries or second-hand bookshops.
A Practical Evaluation of Railroad Motive Power by Paul W. Kiefer, published by Steam Locomotive Research Institute Inc., New York, 1947. Out of print, but may be available from libraries or second-hand bookshops.
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First broadcast: Thursday 8 Oct 1998 on BBC TWO