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Railway Giants: Otto Kuhler, the Genius Designer Whom America Didn't Forgive for His Origins

Railway Giants: Otto Kuhler, the Genius Designer Whom America Didn't Forgive for His Origins
photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia commons/Otto Kuhler
30 / 01 / 2024

Otto Kuhler is one of the many names that do not enjoy the recognition in the public eye that they deserve. The story of the man who designed the latest locomotives overseas brings a series of twists and turns, success, and disappointment. Let's take a look at it together.

A gifted young man

At the beginning of our story, we are in the town of Remschid in northwest Germany. In this young empire, Otto Kuhler is born in 1894. The German Empire is one of the youngest states in the world, having been proclaimed only 23 years earlier at Versailles in France. However, in this short time, it has managed to become one of the most developed countries in the world. Unfortunately for it, this has happened too late, with most of the colonies dismantled, and so there is not much "free" territory to expand its influence. This leads to a considerable militarization of the young state, leading to military conflicts that will be unprecedented in history. But let's not get ahead of ourselves and go back to Remscheid, where the young Otto Kuhler is coming of age.

Even at a young age, Otto shows himself to be a very gifted student. He has many talents, including drawing. Thanks to this, at the age of 19, he also gets into steam engines for the first time, specifically locomotives (note: the predecessor of today's tractors), whose catalog he will illustrate. But slowly but surely, the edge of prosperity in Europe is already ringing. Only a year later, World War I would break out, in which Otto would take part on the German side. He serves as a railway commander in Belgium, where he meets Simonne Gillot, whom he marries in 1928 and has two children, a daughter Winona and a son Renand.

How Otto discovered design

Otto would continue to pursue art after the war, learning a printmaking technique called etching, enrolling at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, and, after emigrating to the USA in 1923, working as an advertising artist in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. His works concentrate on depicting industrial landscapes, steel mills, and locomotives. He prospers so much that he can open his studio in Manhattan in 1928, allowing him to focus on his heart themes. Above all, to promote the construction and modernization of older railways. Although his studio is growing in popularity, fate would have it a little differently. Fickle Fortune turns her back not only on him but on most people on Earth. In 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crashes, bringing with it an unprecedented economic crisis that would later be known in history as the Great Depression. Otto will have to do something else, but he will not leave the business, not completely. He would design trolleys, automobiles, and other motor vehicles for various American companies.

Otto Kuhler photo - Dr.H.Lessing, donated by Renaldo Kuhler / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia commons

In 1931, Otto's fortune would turn again, as the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) would assign him to work in the advertising department. He doesn't last long there; he is too technically gifted for advertising, so he is moved to the design department just a year later. His first task is to change the external appearance of the HH600 diesel switcher. Now the stage is set for Otto to step into the design world's elite. The Milwaukee Road Company needs a fast train for the Chicago-Minneapolis route. He decides to have ALCO build the cars and four Class A locomotives for the line. Otto will be responsible for their appearance. These locomotives will be named after the mythical Indian leader Hiawatha. Otto will also design the interior of the cars, including the napkins and curtains in the dining car. His next-generation Beaver Tail ribbed sightseeing car will be a sensational success, as will the second-generation Milwaukee Road F7 4-6-4 class streamliner passenger locomotives. He will also design the ALCO DL-109 streamliner locomotive, the predecessor to the world-famous ALCO PA diesel locomotives.

Nicanor10 / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia commons

I can do it myself

Otto now feels strong enough to become independent again. He sets up a consulting office that will design locomotives and cars for various American companies. The New York - Washington track will bring him a key order. For the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, which would operate this line, Otto designed a "bullet nose" on a steam locomotive that would become known as the "Kuhler type". In addition to countless other locomotives and cars, Otto's company will participate in the modernization of nine stations, including in Des Moines and Milwaukee.

However, his innovation in railway matters is soon to come to an end. When the US entered World War II at the end of 1941, it was clear that passenger comfort would not improve, at least for some time. In addition, Otto does not even mention his German origin, which his competitors often like to remind him of. In 1944, he is thus forced to give up his freelance work and has to accept a position at the American Car & Foundry (ACF). It is a huge paradox that he applied for most of his patents during his employment with this company. But after only 3 years, Otto is forced to leave this company, allegedly due to personnel changes.

Southern Railway, Seaboard Air Line Railroad, New York Central / Wikimedia commons

Oh, Germany

This is the final straw; Otto is disillusioned with the attitude he faces mainly due to his German heritage and leaves New York with his family. America is thus losing one of the best traffic designers in history, but he is not worried about it; he would rather hunt witches in the form of alleged communist spies.

The Kuhler couple will buy a ranch in the state of Colorado, where they will mainly be engaged in cattle breeding. Otto gets back to his childhood passion, drawing. There aren't many more beautiful places that one could depict artistically than the American "Wild West." It is not without interest that many of his works decorate the walls of many American museums. In 1984, at the blessed age of 83, Otto breathed his last in the company of his closest relatives.

This concludes the life journey of one great designer who was behind the design of several famous American locomotives. His reward was expulsion. Reason? He forgot to choose the "correct" state in which to be born.