Last week, things fell perfectly into place: The weather was good, my schedule was clear, and I was in possession of an invitation to get hands-on at the Museum of the American Railroad in Frisco, Texas.
This particular museum’s claim to fame is moving its entire collection, including a number of very large steam and diesel locomotives, from its former patch of land at Fair Park Dallas to a much larger campus in Frisco, Texas a few years ago. The MARR is still in the process of realizing their long-term goal to build a shop building and a world-class museum on the property, but that hasn’t prevented steady work on their current restoration projects.
The object of our attention today will be the Alco PA #59L. The MARR’s ultimate goal is to restore it back to running condition. That’s an ambitious task--currently, the locomotive has no engine, no mechanical innards at all, and its frame still shows visible damage from a wreck that sent it rolling down an embankment while it was in service in Mexico. There are only two PAs left in the entire United States, though, and it is a worthy project even if it will be a difficult one.
In this session, Robert Willis, the man heading up the PA’s restoration, wants to prioritize cleaning the locomotive up and making it a bit more visually presentable. The Museum recently completed construction on several new display tracks and moved their collection around to better facilitate walking tours, and the PA--and its rust-- is much more visible than it used to be.
Willis already has one restoration under his belt. He headed the acquisition of the Museum’s former Canadian National F-9A and the process of getting it back to working condition and repainting to wear Santa Fe’s Warbonnet livery. His version of this story is a lively one: To hear Willis tell it, when he first became involved with the Museum, he took personal offence that the collection did not include a cab unit and challenged the board members to let him purchase one if he could raise the funds. The effort bore fruit sooner than anyone expected, and now the F-9A is one of the Museum’s prime movers.
Credit goes the Smithsonian Institute for bringing two Alco PAs back to the United States, but Willis deserves credit for ensuring that one of them returned to Texas. He likes to shrug that off , though, and say that securing ownership of the 59L was just a matter of asking for it. In any case, Frisco is a particularly good fit for the locomotive The 59L has documented roots heading up passenger trains that out of Fort Worth, and it feels like closing a circle to restore an Alco commissioned by the Santa Fe back to running condition when the descendant companies of both corporations, BNSF and General Electric Transportation Services, are both less than fifty miles away. The locomotive might have served on many different North American railroads, but it is especially poignant to restore and operate a historic locomotive in its native territory.
Today, though, the emphasis of the work session is on cleaning the 59L up. There wasn’t any thought of restoring it to a second career when its inside parts were cut away, and so the people who removed those components didn’t put much thought into keeping the engine compartment clean. The Museum’s volunteers have already hauled buckets and buckets of debris out, but there are still places where the floor is mulched with metal shavings and rusted pieces flakes. We sweep these up and finally begin to expose the rust-covered but mechanically sound frame. Willis has already brought in contractors to inspect the locomotive’s frame: Despite some of the car body supports being bent out of shape, it is still fundamentally in mechanically sound condition.
The rust is relatively easy to clean away, but there are also many cubic square feet of soil compacted into the locomotive’s floor and frame. Our only guess as to how so much of it got there is that it was forced in when the locomotive rolled over in the wreck. Every bit of it will have to be removed at some point ahead of the installation of new mechanical parts. Today is as good a day as any to begin.
This sort of work is where you earn your restoration bragging rights. It’s dirty, tedious, and physically uncomfortable. Even with masks and goggles, the spring wind finds ways to force the dust we kick up into our mouths and eyes. We can sweep up the metal flakes and blow away the loose dust away with a leaf blower, but most of the soil is compacted into hard nodules and forced into the locomotive’s recesses. The only way to remove debris like that is with elbow grease and blunt force.
By the time lunch rolls around, Robert and I have scooped several large buckets of refuse out of the PA’s belly. It’s clean enough that we can move on to scraping old paint off of its trucks and frame and spray on a new coat of silver paint. This relatively small and simply project amounts to a vast improvement in the PA’s appearance. Combined with recent work to repair the nose and replace the skirting around the front knuckle, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to imagine the PA back in its rightful Santa Fe colors.
Robert and I end the session talking about what the next major step will be, and what other minor things we can do in the meantime.Even if we did have a shop to help facilitate heavier repairs, most of the improvements that would yield visible progress, like building new car-body covers, will have to wait until the completion of the CAD drawings funded by the TRAINS Magazine preservation awarded to the 59-L in 2016. We discuss trying to hammer out some of the dents on the cab, and of possibly bringing in contractors to cut out and replace the parts that were damaged beyond repair in the wreck, but conclude the session without establishing a clear idea of exactly what the next step will be. Ultimately, though, we are walking away satisfied. There has been steady work on this restoration project, more than there should have been given the circumstances, and we have high confidence that there will be even more by the same time next year.