Wandering 2-8-2 deserves a new home

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, February 20, 2017

Wanted: New home for a clean, smooth-running 2-8-2. Great pulling power. Equipped with 44-inch drivers, one pair without flanges. Perfect for tight curves and light track.

Not a classified ad you’d expect to ever see these days, but one that’s theoretically possible after last week’s surprising news that an arbitrator has ruled for the owner of just such a steam locomotive and against a venerable railroad museum, to the tune of $200,000 in damages.

That’s the situation facing Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wis., after an arbitrator decided on February 10 that the museum owes $200,000 to Roland “Skip” Lichter, principal owner of Saginaw Timber No. 2, a 1912 Baldwin Mikado that was once a mainstay on the museum’s railroad. The engine has undergone a meticulous, long-term restoration and is back in operating condition.

I’ll avoid getting into the details of the arbitration case. A story like this is more the purview of the news staff over at Trains magazine, not so much Classic Trains. Plus, a full disclosure: about 15 years ago I spent some time on the Mid-Continent board of directors, so someone might naturally question my objectivity.

One thing I can say without qualification, however, is that No. 2 is one terrific locomotive, and I hope Skip finds a welcoming new home for it. There’s a long list of tourist lines and museums that could make good use of this unusually versatile machine. Skip tells me he already has 17 inquiries, some of them very promising, and he finds the interest “overwhelming.”

Like a lot of tourist steam, No. 2 has a peripatetic history, having bounced around a number of owners in the logging business of Washington State before moving to the Midwest approximately 50 years ago.

During its tenure with Rayonier, the 'Saginaw engine' brings a loaded log train into Moclips, Wash. Stan Kistler photo
Created in 1908, the Saginaw Timber Co. was an outfit based along the Chehalis River west of Olympia, Wash., near the Pacific Coast. The logging firm operated 40 miles of track to get logs to the riverhead, mostly using geared locomotives along its tortuous forest grades and curves.

But some situations required an engine with greater speed, and the answer was No. 2, delivered by Baldwin in December 1912. The locomotive was an oil-burner, to reduce the risk of causing a forest fire. Its relatively small driving wheels could really dig in, and that “blind” center driver enabled the engine to manage 30-degree curves.

The logging business was unpredictable, and the compact 2-8-2 often found itself moving along to new owners. Around 1924, Saginaw and the North Western Lumber Co. in nearby Hoquiam arranged a swap of locomotives, and the 2-8-2 made its first move, working for North Western until 1939.

The next owner was Polson Logging Co., also of Hoquiam. Polson already had a similar 2-8-2, built by Baldwin in 1922 to the same specs as the 2, and Polson liked it so much it bargained for the original. The sister 2-8-2, now numbered 70, survives today on the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad. At the moment, No. 2 is lettered for Polson.

In 1948, Polson was bought out by lumber giant Rayonier, which kept the 2 around a few more years until dieselization was completed. Then came the big move east, in 1962, when Grand Traverse Northern Corp., based in the Upper Peninsula town of Marquette, Mich., acquired the locomotive to use on a new tourist line, the Cadillac & Lake City, near Cadillac, 186 miles southeast of Marquette in the northern Lower Peninsula.

Accounts indicate the locomotive’s 2,300-mile journey from Hoquiam to Marquette was an ordeal, requiring a month of slow-speed running over Northern Pacific and Soo Line.

No. 2 backs across a road crossing in rural Michigan with a Cadillac & Lake City tourist train in August 1968. Robert L. Hogan photo
The 2 began winning a measure of fame in 1965 when its owners started running it on the C&LC, which ran from the village of Lake City west 4 miles to a junction with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Grand Rapids–Mackinaw City main line, formerly the Grand Rapids & Indiana. The new location was apt: the Lake City line started life as a GR&I logging branch.

I discovered No. 2 in the early 1970s, when I was a student at Michigan State. The C&LC was never a tremendously successful tourist line, remote as it was, but the beautifully proportioned 2-8-2 looked splendid hauling trains of summertime tourists through the woods, and for years it was nearly the only operating steam to be found in Michigan.

The 2-8-2 worked faithfully for the C&LC until the railroad ceased operation in 1976, then it went through a succession of owners and situations before moving to North Freedom and Mid-Continent in 1982 after being purchased by a group of MCRM members, including Skip.

In Wisconsin, the low-drivered Mike works uphill with a photo freight on Mid-Continent's line in February 1987. Bill Raia photo
For the next 18 years No. 2 was often a star attraction in the heyday of MCRM steam. The museum fielded a number of noteworthy locomotives at one time or another — including famous Chicago & North Western R-1 4-6-0 No. 1385 — but with its trim profile and obvious power, I always felt the “Saginaw engine,” as it was usually called, seemed most at home on the museum’s quaint 4-mile line to Quartzite Lake.

The 2-8-2 was sidelined in 2000 in order to bring it up to new FRA steam standards, and Skip and his crew began a thorough, long-term restoration.

A few years ago I accompanied Trains Editor Jim Wrinn on a visit to the cavernous factory floor of Milwaukee Boiler, where Skip and his crew was virtually remanufacturing the 2’s entire boiler and firebox. I remember thinking how beautiful the engine would look when it once again dug into the hill heading south from the North Freedom yard, always quite a show.

Such a scene apparently isn’t going to happen, which is a shame for some of us who associate No. 2 with MCRM. Skip professes a bit of sadness about it, as well.

But now there is an opportunity steam locomotive owners rarely have in 2017, a chance to make a new start with a showroom-quality machine, resplendent in its dark-green boiler jacket, complete with a fresh FRA boiler ticket. So far Skip has put only 12 miles on the engine since the restoration was completed and he’s eager to get it broken in. Some lucky museum or tourist operation is sure to give him that chance. 

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