From Ugly Duckling to Icon


Gary Dolzall

January 13th, 2022

Born of modest expectations, the Electro-Motive “Geep” became one of the most successful locomotives in history and a true American railroading icon.

Words and Photographs by Gary Dolzall

Richard “Dick” Dilworth, Electro-Motive’s maestro of diesel locomotive design, rather famously said that when he designed the EMD GP7 road-switcher, he had two goals: “The first was to make a locomotive so ugly in appearance that no railroad would want it on the main line or anywhere near headquarters, but would keep it out as far as possible in the back country, where it could do really useful work. My second dream was to make it so simple in construction and so devoid of Christmas-tree ornaments and other whimsy that the price would be materially below our standard main-line freight locomotives."

When it came to the railroads’ reaction to his GP7, history would prove Dilworth wrong, and indeed the locomotive would not be banished to railroading’s backwaters but rather welcomed on main lines and even in passenger service. As for the road-switcher doing “useful work,” Dilworth was spot on. The GP7 would become the sire of EMD’s long-lived and extraordinary successful “Geep” road-switchers and prove to be an American railroading icon.

In the years immediately following World War II, the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors lorded over the marketplace for main line freight diesel locomotives, churning out its landmark series of streamlined “F-units” by the thousands. For EMD, there was little need to do more than take and fill countless orders. Electro-Motive’s primary competitor, Alco (American Locomotive Company), meanwhile, was intent on finding ways to bite into EMD’s market stranglehold. And Alco originated a concept that, albeit slowly, would change the nature of American diesels – the “road-switcher.” Designed for ease of operation in either direction and forgoing the streamlined carbody diesel the likes of EMD’s F-units, the road-switcher called upon a simple (and inexpensive) design with narrow hoods on each end of the cab and external walkways.

Alco had, in fact, debuted its road-switcher design prior to America’s entry into WWII – with its 1,000-horsepower four-axle RS1 of March 1941 – and the Rock Island was the first buyer. But with America’s entry into the war, all subsequent production of Alco’s new design was requisitioned for military use (in the form of a six-axle variant, the RSD1, destined to serve in faraway places including Russia and Iran). Following the end of the war, regular RS1 construction for the railroads resumed and the RS1 would remarkably remain in production until 1960. When, in 1946, Alco upped its game with the introduction of its 1,500-horsepower RS2 and with Baldwin Locomotive Works and Fairbanks-Morse also offering 1,500-horsepower road-switchers, EMD had to take notice.

In one of Dick Dilworth’s rare missteps, his first attempt at a production EMD road-switcher – the distinctive “BL” branch line model of 1948 – proved both expensive to build and not particularly popular (only 59 were built). And thus came the EMD GP7 (“GP” stood for “General Purpose”). Externally simple (but nonetheless pleasing in appearance despite Dilworth’s disclaimers), the GP7 called upon all the proven mechanical ingredients of the fabulously successful EMD F-units, including the builder’s 1,500-horsepower, 16-cylinder EMD 567B-series powerplant, D12 main generator, D27B traction motors, and Blomberg B two-axle trucks. An optional addition of a steam generator placed in the short hood of the GP7 made the locomotive well-suited to commuter and passenger work. And the rest is, as they say, history. Rolled out in October 1949, the GP7 would garner sales of 2,729 units through 1954. And right behind it came the GP9 (with a horsepower increase to 1,750 but otherwise little changed from the original Geep). The GP9 tallied 4,257 sales through 1959. A final, nearly identical sister model, the 1,800-horsepower GP18, would add 390 Geeps to the EMD sales log between 1959 and 1963, and the Geeps’ design would be adapted, in six-axle (C-C) form, to create the Electro-Motive SD7, SD9, and SD18. An interesting curio of early Geep production was the building of five cabless GP7 boosters (for the Santa Fe) and 165 cabless GP9s (for Union Pacific and the Pennsylvania).

Beginning in the 1950s and for decades to follow, the GP7 and GP9 could be found in every corner of the United States and Canada, and it would be a far simpler task to list those railroads that did not own a Geep rather than tally those that did. The Geeps handled main line freight, local, switching, and even commuter and passenger services with equal verve. And often as not, it was the Geep that replaced steam on America’s last steam-power holdouts, such as Norfolk & Western, Nickel Plate, Illinois Central, and Chesapeake & Ohio.

For the railroad enthusiast, encounters with the Geep were always captivating and diverse. The sounds of the EMD 567-series engine were, of course, as sweet as any to be heard at trackside, and encounters with the Geep could range, as they did for me, from watching a lone Milwaukee Road GP9 carefully trundle along on a branch line’s uncertain tracks to witnessing a trio of black-clad New York Central Geeps hustling the railroad’s magnificent James Whitcomb Riley passenger train out of Chicago bound for Cincinnati.

Perhaps the greatest compliment extended to the early Geep was that, after a quarter-century of service, when most locomotives would head to retirement, many of the Geeps’ owners said, “not so fast” and the likes of Illinois Central (with its famed “Paducah Rebuilds”), Milwaukee Road, Canadian National, Conrail, Seaboard Coast Line, and Southern Pacific all rolled Geeps through rebuilding programs that would extend their life another decade or more. And thus it was that early Geeps would live long enough to wear diverse liveries that included Norfolk Southern, BNSF, Amtrak, Metro-North, and a host of new American regional railroads.

Still at work on various short lines and regional roads (and giant Canadian National still rosters a handful of rebuild GP9s), the Electro-Motive Geep has also become a workhorse for numerous tourist line and museum operations. Happily, for railfans, that means the experience of the diesel “ugly duckling turned icon” still can be readily discovered and enjoyed.

Gary-Dolzall-GP9-Rapid-River The year is 1984 and Soo Line Electro-Motive GP9 553 is just short of three decades old, but with a fresh red-and-white paint job looks far from an “ugly duckling” as it and a sister lead tonnage across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at Rapid River. The “torpedo tubes” (air tanks) on the top of the long hood indicate the Geep was originally built with a steam generator for use in passenger service.

Gary-Dolzall-GP9-Illinois Fulfilling a role Dick Dilworth envisioned – toting freight on a secondary line – Toledo, Peoria & Western GP7 103 is heading a freight across snowy northern Illinois in January 1977. The 300-mile-long TP&W relied heavily on Alco power, but nonetheless purchased GP7 103 and two sisters in 1952.

Gary-Dolzall-GP9-Radnor-Yard Standard equipment on Geeps was Electro-Motive’s Blomberg B road trucks as were used on EMD’s F-units. Thus, truly uncommon were a handful of Geeps, purchased by the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis (a predecessor of the Louisville & Nashville) and the U. S. Army which rode on switcher-style trucks. During their years working for the L&N, switcher-truck-equipped GP7s 494 and 495 stood at Radnor Yard in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1976.

Gary-Dolzall-GP9-Horseshoe-Curve Evidence that the EMD Geep was indeed welcome on American railroads’ busiest and most visible main lines is Pennsylvania Railroad GP9 7095 teaming up with a GE U25B easing a heavy coal train down famed Horseshoe Curve on the PRR’s fabulous Pittsburgh Division.

Gary-Dolzall-GP10-Avon-Yard Perhaps the greatest compliment extended to the early Geep was that, after a quarter-century or more of service, numerous railroads chose to rebuild and enhance the Geeps to provide for years of further work. Conrail 7595 began life as a Pennsylvania Railroad GP9 and by the time it was captured on film working with a slug at Conrail’s giant Avon (Indiana) yard in 1980, the diesel had been remanufactured and reclassified by Conrail as a “GP10.”

Gary-Dolzall-GP9-Tulip-Trestle Dramatic is the scene as Illinois Central GP9 9341 leads a unit coal train across half-mile-long, 157-feet-tall Tulip Trestle near Solsberry, Indiana, in August 1975. The second and third diesels in the lash-up are products of Illinois Central’s expansive and remarkable Geep rebuilding program at its famed Paducah (Kentucky) shops.

Gary-Dolzall-GP9-Iowa-City Countless Geeps, thanks to their longevity and versatility, lived second lives. At Iowa City, Iowa, in 1988 is Iowa Interstate (a regional railroad) GP9 300, which began its life for Western Pacific, joined the Union Pacific roster when WP was merged into UP, then was sold to Iowa Interstate.

Gary-Dolzall-GP9-Danbury Surely unexpected was that giant commuter operator Metro-North would roster a single GP9, which once was a passenger-service New York Central Geep. Spiffy and clean in MNCR silver, blue, and red livery, MNCR 750 stood at Danbury, Connecticut, in 1992. The diesel handled maintenance of way and switching duties.

Gary-Dolzall-GP9-Vermont Serving a welcomed role many Geeps assumed in their golden years is Green Mountain GP9 1850 (an ex-Chesapeake & Ohio unit) hauling tourists through southern Vermont. Thanks to short lines, tourist lines, and museums, the experience of the diesel “ugly duckling turned icon” still can be readily discovered and enjoyed.

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