The next Ely?

Posted by Justin Franz
on Monday, January 30, 2017

A Simpson Railroad train heads back to Shelton, Washington in September 2013. Photo by Justin Franz.
Three years ago, I stood along a muddy road in the woods of western Washington and listened to the rain. The weather was exactly what you would expect for the Pacific Northwest: gray, grungy and wet.

After a few minutes, a low rumble emerged from the forest in front of me. As the rumble grew louder it was joined by the squeal of wheels rolling along rusty rails. A few minutes after that, a loud horn interrupted the rumble and the squeal and a red SW1200 poked its noise around the corner leading a long line of log cars. The only thing reminding me that the scene unfolding before me wasn’t set in the 1960s was the digital camera in my hand.

For decades, this scene unfolded almost daily on the Simpson Railroad, one of the last logging railroads in the United States. But it came to a sudden end in 2015 when Simpson announced they were selling the mill and closing the railroad. Since then the Simpson Railroad has been silent.

But a small group of historians and rail enthusiasts are trying to change that. Last week, I wrote about the creation of the Peninsular Railway and Lumbermen’s Museum and their goal to save the former Simpson Railroad as an operating museum dedicated to preserving the history of logging railroading in the Pacific Northwest. Anyone who follows railroad preservation knows that there are dozens of projects underway across the country right now: from those trying to put a fresh coat of paint on an old caboose to the more ambitious ones trying to get an old steamer back on the main line. There are so many preservation efforts that it can be pretty easy to lose track of them. But if you’re interested in American railroad during the second half of the 20th Century, pay attention to what’s happening in Shelton.

Rarely does the preservation community have an opportunity to save a railroad in its entirety, but that’s exactly what could happen in Shelton, where the rails, roundhouse, locomotives, log cars and maintenance equipment remain intact and mostly together (albeit owned by separate entities but ones that apparently realize the importance of keeping it together, for now). Think of it as a diesel-era version of the Nevada Northern or East Broad Top.

Last year, Simpson tried to offer the roundhouse and rails to the local government, but the city council declined because they didn’t want to take on such a project. That’s when the grassroots Peninsular Railway and Lumbermen’s Museum stepped up to the plate. The group only recently appointed a board of directors and launched an online presence but it’s clear that they are excited about the task ahead of them.

It’s too early to say if they will be successful, but if they are, a critical piece of American railroading would be saved. While Ely and Orbisonia stand as monuments to steam-era shortline railroading, we don’t have a similar artifact to represent the diesel-era.

Will Shelton become the next Ely or Orbisonia? I hope so.

For more information, visit www.PeninsularRailway.org or visit them on Facebook. 

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