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Leap Year? More Like Lima Year! Shays, Mikados and Pacifics (Part 1 of 2)

I’m writing this during a leap year, which means we experienced February 29th in 2024. According to NASA, leap years exist because Earth takes 365.25 days to orbit the sun. This quarter day is stacked, and after four years, it is added to the solar calendar as an extra 366th day. I’ve always been “meh” about leap years since it’s just one day every four years. It felt like the calendar was just squeezing in an extra day of classes or work. 

But this leap year turned out to be more memorable than usual because on February 29th, I rediscovered Lima Locomotive Works–a company that thrived during the steam engine era. Beginning in 1879, Lima built 7,752 locomotives until it closed in 1972. These days, Lima’s steam engines still get plenty of love, but the company itself doesn’t get mentioned much. So when I came across Lima Locomotive Works, I decided to take a dive into the shallow end of its history. After I did, I was so impressed that I decided to make 2024 the year that I deviated from my Hudson fixation and bought a Lima locomotive. I already have the Southern Pacific Daylight, so maybe a Shay, Chesapeake & Ohio Greenbrier, or Pere Marquette Berkshire?

The Shays. According to the website,, the Lima Locomotive Works, Inc. was a not-in-Peru company that was started in Ohio. It began as Lima Machine Works, an outfit that built farm equipment and general machinery. Then in 1878, Lima was hired to produce its first steam locomotive called the Shay–no surprise since it was designed by Ephraim Shay, a Renaissance man and self-taught train engineer. The Shays were good on tracks that had to navigate steep inclines or crappy rails, which made them popular with the logging and mining industries. It goes without saying that Shays hauled a lot of flatcars and mining wagons back i the day. They were geared locomotives, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Sidetrack. One of the first things I like to do with research is see what books are available on the subject. When I looked up the Shay, I found The Shay Locomotive: Titan of theTimber (1971) for the bargain price of squints $199. Talk about “sticker shock.” If you think $199 is an outlier, the lowest price for this book that I could find was $172 with $5 shipping; the highest was a signed copy for $550. I guess I won’t be reading “the most comprehensive book on the history of the Shay locomotive” any time soon. This makes The Shay Locomotive: An Illustrated History (2002) a bargain at $75.99.

Anyway, back to the company and its first locomotive. What made Shays stand out from the rest was its gearing. Instead of the typical coupling rods that everyone associates with steam engines, they had counterweights and crankshafts.

 If you’re into the tech side of trains, there are so many rabbit holes you can go down when it comes to this locomotive. Techie railfans love to geek out over Shay engines. But I’m definitely not a techie, so I’ll just say that the Shay reminds me of how car engines work. Someone described the mechanism as being like bike gears where, to get up an incline, you go into a lower gear so there’s less resistance. This means you’ll peddle faster, but more easily. Apparently, it was the same with the Shay (?). To get up hills, it would go into a lower gear, and its mechanisms would spin faster. A person can get hypnotized watching videos of the Shay; it’s just so cool. The engine may not be fast, but it's a blast to watch. I highly recommend the RBP video of a model Shay running on his tracks. For real live Shays, I like this video from Dynamo Productions of the Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia. They even film three Shays running at the same time, and that’s a lot of steam! 

Mikados. Lima is better known for manufacturing other steam engines besides the Shay, and first up is the Mikado. I once mentioned the Mikado to my dad, who asked if I was talking about the Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Huh? It turns out, he had a point. The Mikado was an incredibly popular American steam locomotive with a 2-8-2 wheel arrangement. The first Mikado was built by Baldwin in 1897 for Japan’s Nippon Railway. Sidetrack: When I was researching gauges for my thesis, I came across an interesting chapter by Naofumi Nakamura on railroad technology development in Japan. Basically, the Japanese benefited from buying and then replicating the most advanced technologies from the US, UK and Germany. Then they synthesized and improved on the technologies, which is how they went from imitators to originators of the 

The American version got its name from the fact that the Japanese emperor was then called the Mikado (“imperial gate”) and from the Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Who knew? The Mikado has also been called “Mike,” but during WWII, its name was officially changed to the “MacArthur” after the Pearl Harbor attack. But after the war, it seemed like everyone went back to the Mikado name. Light freight 2-8-2s were also called the McAdoo Mikado after the head of the United States Railroad Administration. Another bit of Mikado trivia is that Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 Movement Symphony No. 1, written in 1923, was inspired by the Pacific Locomotive. Have a listen here. It’s not your usual train music. But then, I pretty much associate train songs with Thomas the Tank Engine. I didn’t realize that this Doobie Brothers classic, “Long Train Running,” is about (duh!) long. trains. running. The music video even shows a bunch of steam engines. 

Well, pistons keep on churnin'

And the wheels go 'round and 'round

And the steel rails are cold and hard

On the mountains they go down

Without love 

Where would you be right now?


I’m not the biggest fan of the Mikados, but the engine has plenty of devoted railans out there. So look elsewhere for your Mikado fix–maybe start here, here, here, and here. Lima and Baldwin produced 14,000 Mikados that were used all over the world until diesels took over. The Wayback Machine has a nice archived piece about what companies used them in the U.S. 


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