The year was 2005; I was in my last semester of college and starting to explore my photography seriously. My grandfather, on a lengthy trip, had asked me to housesit for him in Guelph. Having nothing much to do, I would often take long walks in the city’s downtown. And looming giant next to the central train station is a rusting hulk of a steam locomotive. While I paid little attention to the engine, CN 6167 was among the luckiest and most photographed locomotives in Canada.
Locomotives are classified under many different means, name, class, motive power, and most common wheel configuration. The wheel configuration is known as the Whyte notation, and 6167 is a 4-8-4 or, better known, the Northern or Confederation type. Like other locomotives, the 4-8-4 is the next step up from three older configurations, the 4-8-2 “Mountain”, 2-8-4 “Berkshire” and 4-6-4 “Hudson”. It carries on the idea of a super-power concept with a larger firebox supported by the four trailing wheels; these earliest examples came from the Lima Locomotive Works. But the first 4-8-4 would be produced in 1926 by the American Locomotive Company for the Northern Pacific Railway and earned the name “Northern” as a result. The resulting locomotive could power high-speed passenger and fast freight trains with ease in almost any condition. And the design of the firebox and boiler allowed the burning of even low-grade coal and produced the same amount of power. Canadian locomotive makers, mainly Montreal Locomotive Works, a subsidiary of American Locomotive Company, picked up the design in 1927. These first 4-8-4 locomotives produced on the 60th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation were given the name Confederation, although Northern proved more popular. Both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific made use of the Northern type locomotive. Canadian Pacific ended up not picking up the model, producing only two but not building additional units. Canadian National, on the other hand, ordered 160 Northern Locomotives producing several different variants. Within Canadian National, the Northerns were classified as U-2, save for one particular built unit. The U-4a selected five highly streamlined Northerns, one of which, Number 6400, pulled the Royal Train during the 1939 tour.
Number 6167 rolled out of the Montreal Locomotive Works in 1940, a Class U-2-e, one of fourteen class locomotives. Canadian National assigned 6167 to the east coast. Locomotive 6167 found its home in Moncton, New Brunswick. For Canada, the Second World was starting to heat up, and 6167 pulled troop and supply trains towards waiting for ships at Halifax to support the ongoing war in Europe. And the battle is the primary reason why 6167 survives today. On 6 July 1943, 6167 collided head-on with her sister locomotive 6166 at full speed near Montmagny, Quebec. The resulting crash saw both locomotives thrown fifteen feet into the air before crashing back down. Canadian troops from the nearby training camp were enlisted to guard the wreck site while the cleanup and investigations occurred. The first thought for the cause was sabotage by Nazi agents, thankfully no signs of sabotage were found, and the accident was caused by human error. The collision resulted in the death of three, one instantly, and two more succumbed to injury. Under peace conditions, both locomotives would have been scrapped and replacements produced. But with most industrials pivoted to the war effort, both 6167 and 6166 were repaired and returned to service. Locomotive 6167 continued to serve through the war and into the post-war period. But as diesel-electric, which for many years had been relegated to yard switching duty, the arrival of new road and road-switcher engines, the days of steam were starting to come to a close. Starting in 1953, Canadian National began the long road to the retirement of their steam fleet. Many Northern locomotives were sent to the scrapyards, but 6167’s luck had not yet run out. After an overhaul at Stratford’s Motive Power shops in 1959, Canadian National began using 6167 in Ontario as a tourist train. Many still wanted to experience the romance of a steam locomotive powered train. And 6167 proved popular and quickly found its way onto many tourist’s vacation slides. But age quickly caught up to 6167, and by 1964 the locomotive required extensive boiler repair. Canadian National had no choice but to retire 6167 as the Motive Power Shops in Stratford had closed. 6167 would be put in mothballs at CN’s Spadina Roundhouse in Toronto.
For the 100th Anniversary of the Canadian Confederation in 1967 and to reduce its mothball fleet in preparation for disposal of property in Toronto’s Railway Lands, Canadian National began donating their old Northerns to cities around Canada shared some connection to the railway. For 6167, the contest was between Guelph and Stratford, with Guelph winning out. 6167 arrived in Guelph with great fanfare and took up residence next to Guelph Central Station. But like any donation, the city was happy for a free piece of railway history but did the bare minimum to keep the locomotive in good condition. And no one in the city was willing to accept this responsibility. At least the locomotive got a paint job once a year from inmates at the Guelph Reformatory. But when prison labour was shut down in the 1990s under a series of reforms. It began a target for vandalism and even had the cab set on fire, thankfully causing little major damage. But 6167 was a lucky locomotive, and even as the years and elements turned her into a rusting hulk, it did not do anything for the engine’s luck. In 2002 as part of its downtown renewal plan, the Guelph City Council began investigating the restoration of 6167. A consultant was brought on to assess the condition, and surprisingly and despite the amount of decay, the locomotive was in better shape than was expected. The restoration would not be a difficult one. But restoration took both time and money, and efforts would not be complete until 2014. Further troubles came during renovations and expansion of Guelph Central Station and the bus terminal, 6167 would need to find a new home. Thankfully though, the efforts of Guelph Museums, who had taken over the care of 6167, arranged for a new concrete pad at nearby John Galt Park as a new home for the locomotive. Efforts to move her took place in November 2020, with the work being completed by PNR Railworks. Ironically, the engine now sits near where Canadian Pacific once operated its station and a railway yard. Thankfully there are many examples of Northern locomotives that were saved from the scrap yards. Six locomotives are on display in Canada; in addition to 6167, you can find two at the Canadian Science & Technology Museum in Ottawa, including the sleek 6400 from the Royal Tour. 6167’s replacement on the tourist circuit is located in Fort Erie, and Toronto’s Roundhouse Park is home to 6213. Two that served on Grand Trunk West are saved in the United States. And two Northern’s that were built for Canadian Pacific are also preserved, one in Ottawa and the other in Saskatchewan.