McKeen Car
Photo courtesy of John Combs

Here is a pretty obscure relic that I found just outside the Anchorage Yard. It is a McKeen car, no 83. Its history is 108 McKeen Model 1910 Ex-Yuma Valley RR, acquired 1926 Baggage section added 1916, (Bureau of Reclamation), rebuilt with rounded nose, 1927 and repowered, rebuilt to unpowered combine No. 83, 1931, used by the 714th Railway Operating Battalion in 1943-44 (see photos 1 and 2), retired late 1940s, body privately owned, Anchorage, ex-San Diego Cuyamaca & Eastern, sold 1912. If you think the outside needs a little work, just check out the inside!

I was in contact with the owner of number 83. He began preservation efforts in November 2001.  He then sold it to Anchorage Historic Properties in 2004.

General History

William R. McKeen, Jr., Superintendent of Motive Power for the Union Pacific, in 1905 designed and built the first McKeen motor car in their shops in Omaha. In the following 3 years a number were built to supplant steam trains on lightly traveled branch lines.

In 1908 the demand had become so great that Edward H. Harriman, who controlled both the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, financed the McKeen Motor Car Company, and production was started in an old shop building in Omaha.

William R. McKeen, Jr. in his design and construction of these motor cars, was far in advance of his time. The wind-splitting front end, the streamlined design throughout, the heavy steel underframe, the all-steel body construction, the center entrance and his use of what were the most powerful marine-type gasoline engines at that time all point to his genius and ingenuity.

Over 50 railroads operated these motor cars. Among the trunk lines to purchase them new were the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Northern Pacific, Pennsyulvania, Illinois Central, Rock Island, Chicago Great Western, Chicago & North Western, Erie and Soo Line. Some short lines operated no other passenger equipment.

The standard model was 55 feet in length although some 70-foot cars were built. Passenger trailers were 50 feet long and mail-baggage trailers were 31 feet. These latter cars were originally built with a 4-wheel truck, but most railroads soon rebuilt them with double trucks.

All the motor cars were built with steel bodies, pointed fronts, round backs, port-hole windows and center entrances. Their gasoline engine was mounted crosswise in the front truck with a big flywheel protruding beyond the left-side truck frame. This engine was geared only to the front axle which had 42 inch wheels. The rear axle had 33 inch wheels. It was equipped with a chain drive, an air clutch and had a two-speed transmission.

As built by the McKeen Motor Car Company, the cars had no reverse gears, and to back up it was necessary to stop the motor and re-start it in the oopposite direction after shifting the cam shaft. This proved so troublesome that most railroads installed their own reverse gears.

A total of 152 McKeen cars were built between 1905 and 1917. They were not very durable and had a tendency to shake themselves apart after a few years of operation.

You'll find more McKeen information here.

Check out this August 9, 2003 Anchorage Daily News article Keen on a McKeen

And you'll find even more McKeen history by reading Born Thirty Years Too Soon

Engineering drawing