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Donate before you shoot

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Southern Pacific No. 4449 leads an excursion into Cut Bank, Montana in October 2009. Photo by Justin Franz.
Last weekend, Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 was steaming through Minnesota and North Dakota. In two weeks, Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765 will be storming across Chicagoland. And a week after that, Southern Pacific No. 4449 will be rolling through the stunning Columbia River Gorge.

Along the way, thousands of railroad enthusiasts will be trackside looking for that perfect shot. I’ll be there too, shooting No. 4449 as it runs from Portland to Bend and back. But before I pack my bags for Oregon, I’ll be making a donation to the folks who spend their weekends keeping that magnificent streamlined locomotive rolling. If you plan on shooting main line steam this summer, I hope you do the same.

Maintaining and operating a main line steam locomotive in the 21st Century is no easy task. It’s certainly not a cheap one. Restoring any steam locomotive is an expensive endeavor and the costs don’t stop when it rolls out the door and onto the main line. Insurance coverage for excursions can cost thousands of dollars; leasing coaches to haul happy and paying passengers can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000 a day; hotel rooms for crews can cost non-profit groups thousands of dollars a night; and coal, that all important source of energy for a steam locomotive, can cost up to $200 per ton. That adds up quickly, especially when a locomotive like No. 765 can burn 22 tons of coal in one day on the main line, according to Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society Vice President Kelly Lynch.

As No. 4449 engineer Doyle McCormack once told me, “You can make a small fortune running a main line steam locomotive. All you have to do is start with a large fortune.”

While excursion ticket costs can cover expenses and hopefully put a few dollars away for future work, non-profit steam groups also rely heavily on donations. If you’re going to enjoy all their hard work by recording these magnificent machines on film, it’s only fair that you pitch in a few bucks. Considering how much money some of us spend on gas, hotels or airfare crisscrossing the country shooting steam, writing a check for $100 to cover half a ton of coal shouldn’t be out of the question. Not only will you be helping out a worthy cause, you’ll be ensuring that these locomotives can get back on the main line in the future.

Here are some links to where to donate to keep your favorite main line locomotive rolling this summer.

Southern Pacific No. 4449

Milwaukee Road No. 261

Nickel Plate Road No. 765

Santa Fe No. 3751

Norfolk & Western No. 611

Pere Marquette No. 1225

Union Pacific No. 844*

*Ok, so you could make the argument that Union Pacific has more than enough money to restore its own steam locomotives, but if you’re going to be lensing No. 844 this summer, consider buying a souvenir to show your support for the steam program.  

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