An American in France: Making a full Circle

The moment I bumped into to sugar beet lines of Northern France, I was smitten for life. The picture above really awakened the Francophile in me and pushed me to find out out as much as I could about this locomotive and the narrow gauge lines it ran on. The whole atmosphere of this picture just has a certain “Je ne sais quoi” about it …

Surplus equipment of the WDLR, with a vast amount of 230T Baldwins and 230T Hunslet locomotives.

The origin of these lines lies in the Great War of 1914-18. After the Armistice of the 11th of November 1918, a large part of Northern France lay in ruins and in 1919 the French “Ministère des Régions Libérées” (MRL) started rebuilding the Red Zone, the area which was devastated during the hostilities. All military equipment in the area came under the control of the MRL who soon realized that the available light railways stock would be essential to their rebuilding efforts, as roads had become almost non-existent. The type of locomotives and rolling stock being used, depended on the sectors of the different armies during the war. The equipment in the Somme and Pas-de-Calais regions was predominantly that of the of the British War Department Light Railways (WDLR), while the equipment of the French soixante could be found in the Aisne and Oise regions. The U.S. 21st Engineer Regiment on their turn operated the light railways in the Meuse region and as to be expected, the equipment of the Heeresfeldbahn of the German Reich was available in all regions of the Red Zone.

A former British 230T Hunslet locomotive of the “Ministère des Régions Libérées“.

Once the rebuilding effort of the MRL had been concluded and the situation had been normalized, the majority of these 60 cm narrow gauge lines slowly disappeared. The equipment itself was sold off in public sales to scrapyards, industrial companies and sugar beet refineries. One of which was the “Société Anonyme des Chemins de Fer à Voie de 0.60” at Vis-en-Artois, a company being owned by two sugar manufacturers, the Société des Sucreries et Raffineries F. Béghin and the Société Anonyme de la Sucrerie Centrale de Cambrai.
At the beginning of 1926, all operations on the MRL lines in the Pas-de-Calais region had been halted already and it was agreed that part of these lines could be sold to the Société Anonyme des Chemins de Fer à Voie de 0.60 to service both sugar beet companies. With its main depot in Vis-en-Artois and the lines in the surroundings of the village, it became to be known as the Vis-en-Artois railway.

As part of the deal, 36 locomotives and about 700 wagons were taken over from the MLR. All the locomotives ran on steam and were former stock of the WDLR. The Vis-en-Artois railway kept them running with their original number plates.

Manufacturer Type # of Locomotives
Baldwin 230T 27
Alco-Cooke 161T 8
Hudson 030T 1
The locomotives which ran on the roster of the Vis-en-Artois railway in 1926.

Besides the locomotives shown in he above table, there were also several other types of locomotives being used at yards of the râperies (the initial processing factories). These mainly consisted of 040T Brigadeloks and 230T Hunlets.
The wagons being used on the Vis-en-Artois railway had mixed origins. The majority of them were former WDLR stock (Type D & Type E) and there was a small batch of American Pershing wagons in use, of which the sides had been heightened to increase the load.

Former WDLR wagons fully loaded with sugar beet at one of the sidings of the Vis-en-Artois railway.

The main purpose of the Société Anonyme des Chemins de Fer à Voie de 0.60 was to haul sugar beet from the bascules (weighbridges and/or collection points for the local farmers) to the râperies and to move the resulting pulp from those plants to railway stations or harbors, allowing it to be transported to the sugar mills by standard gauge trains or boats. The sugar beet season lasted from from September until December and during that period, the main priority was to bring the sugar beet to the râperies as quickly as possible. It was always a busy season for the Vis-en-Artois railway, with up to ten locomotives hauling loaded sugar beet trains to the râperies and with several spare locomotives available under steam at different locations.

During the existence of the Vis-en-Artois railway about five locomotives were sold to sugar mills or other railway companies. For example no. 1265, a 131T Alco-Cooke, went to the Tramway de Pithiviers à Toury in 1935. Another eight locomotives were commandeered during the Second World War by the Germans and were never to be heard of again. Close to the end of the Vis-en-Artois railway only fourteen 230T Baldwins and seven 131T Alco-Cookes remained. By December 1957 operations on the Vis-en-Artois railway were halted and before the summer of the next year all rollings stock had been sold to several scrap yards.

Although this type of locomotive was designed and built on the other side of the Atlantic, its origins lie in France …

The locomotive shown in the picture at the top of this post, is one of the 230T Baldwin locomotives of the Vis-en-Artois railway. To be more precise, it’s
no. 753 at the bascule (weighbridge) at Marais Quez in Vis-en-Artois, leaving with a fully loaded train of sugar beet wagons. The locomotive itself was produced by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia for the WDLR and according to the official works classification it is a Baldwin Class 10-12 D. Although this type of locomotive was designed and built on the other side of the Atlantic, its origins lie in France … so let’s dive into its history a bit more.

A 230T Weidknecht of the Chemins de fer Militaires du Maroc Occidental at Rabat railway station.

While searching for a more powerful locomotive for their narrow gauge lines, the Chemins du Fer de Calvados (CFC) contacted Les Ateliers de Construction du Pont de Flandre, Weidknecht Frères & Cie in Paris. As locomotives with 030T design had proven to be too light for a 60 cm gauge commercial railway service, Weidknecht constructed a 3-axle locomotive with and additional 2-axle truck in the front. This resulted in a 230T design, which allowed for a larger boiler providing more power and speed. The design proved to be successful and the CFC ordered a total six of these 230T Weidknechts. Other railways, like the Compagnie des Chemin de Fer à Voie Étroite et Tramways à Vapeur du Tarn soon followed with additional orders. One of Weidknecht’s biggest customers however turned out to be the French Ministère de la Guerre for the military railways in Morocco. The construction of the 60 cm gauge Chemins de fer Militaires du Maroc Occidental (C.M.M.O.) had started in 1911 and ten 230T locomotives were ordered from Weidknecht.

A French 230T Baldwin taking water in Morocco. The look of the Class 10-12 D is still very American.

Soon after the delivery of the first batch of 230T locomotives to the C.M.M.O., Weidknecht’s factory in Paris burned down to the ground and all production was halted. The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 and the occupation of the northern regions of France resulted in an overstretched capacity of the remaining locomotive builders in the non-occupied regions. It forced the French Ministère de la Guerre to look overseas for a follow-up order of locomotives with its beloved 230T configuration. The Baldwin Locomotive Works, of Philedelphia were happy to oblige and adjusted the design of one of its small 130T locomotives, of which two (Pila’a & Kahili) had been built for the Kilauea Sugar Plantation Co. in Hawaii at the turn of the century. The new design was designated by Baldwin as Class 10-12 D and a total of six locomotives were ordered in 1915 for deployment in Morocco. The locomotives, carrying Baldwin works numbers 41897 to 41902, were marked with C.M.M.O. on the sides of the tanks and with their locomotive numbers (no. 101 to 106) on the sides of the cabs & sandboxes. In 1916 another five locomotives were ordered from Baldwin and were shipped to Morocco as well. They carried Baldwin works numbers 44178 to 44182 and were marked with locomotive numbers 107 to 111. As can be seen from the picture below, the appearance of the French Class 10-12 D locomotives is still very American.

Baldwin 103 of the Chemins de fer Militaires du Maroc Occidental just after its arrival in Morocco.

When the WDLR needed to expand its fleet of locomotives, it ran into the same problem. The capacity of the British locomotive manufacturers was overstretched and they were unable to produce the required amount of locomotives at short notice. Similar to the French they ended up at the Baldwin Locomotive Works, who quickly offered to adopt the design of the French Class 10-12 D to the requirements of the British. The Baldwin order states that the specifications are basically the same as those of the last order of the C.M.M.O., however the WDLR requested changes to be made to reduce the overall weight and the weight distribution over the drivers & truck. Both the dome and sandbox were moved ahead, respectively by about 40 and 50 centimeters.

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Baldwin 862 toppled over on its side due to the inherent instability of the 230T Baldwins of the WDLR.

The sidetanks were shortened at the back by about 40 centimeters and their width was increased to retain the overall water capacity. The WDLR also requested a European style cab with open sides. Its weight was reduced by using lighter materials for the front, the sides and the roof. Unfortunately these changes did not improve the running characteristics of the British 230T Baldwins. The widened sidetanks, in combination with water flowing between both tanks through the connecting balance pipes, deteriorated the lateral stability of the locomotives. The problem could cause the locomotives to topple over on their side, when running on uneven or unstable track. This even resulted in some regiments removing the tanks from the sides and pulling them behind the locomotives on an four wheel wagon as a tender.

A supply run being performed in the north of France by Baldwin 737

At the beginning of 1916, the WDLR placed a first order of 45 Class 10-12 D locomotives (no. 501 to 545), which were delivered by Baldwin in the requested dull black livery in October of the same year. Due to the quick turnaround times of the American manufacturer and the low cost of the locomotives, a second order of 350 locomotives (no. 701 to 1050) was quickly placed. Delivery of this order took place during 1916 and 1917 in several batches. In 1917 a final order was placed of 100 locomotives (no. 1051 to 1150) , which amounted to a total of 495 Class 10-12 D locomotives for the WDLR.

As Baldwin 502 was part of the first WDLR order the shades over the cab windows are missing.

Due to experience gained by running Class 10-12 D locomotives under operational circumstances and the light railway experience of the French during the earlier years of the war, the WDLR requested several changes to be made to the overall design of the 230T Baldwin. Most noticeable are the differences between the first an second order. Changes to the design specifications of the second order resulted in the addition of the characteristic shields over the cab windows, flangeless center driving wheels, a Hancock no.6 steam syphon with corrugated suction hose, a hose rack on the back of the coal bunker and built-in traversing jacks. Throughout the production of the different batches, changes were also made to details like, oil lamps, fittings and safety valves. These were procured from several suppliers and the types being used depended on price & availability within the market.

All 495 230T Baldwins of the WDLR, except for nine locomotives being lost at sea during their shipment to Europe, saw active service during the Great War and, as mentioned above, continued performing other duties after the the Armistice of 1918. Almost a hundred years later it’s a shame that only a couple of these veterans still remain in active duty. Interesting to see however, that my quest for more information about the 230T Baldwins of the Vis-en-Artois brought me from France to the United States with stopovers in Morocco and Britain … and finally back again to France. Looking at its history, one could say that the Baldwin 230T made a full circle.