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How many places can put four locomotives in steam in 2012?

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, May 09, 2012


All four operating Mount Rainier Scenic steam locomotives running together make for a fine sight at the railroad’s shops in Mineral, Wash., on May 4. Jim Wrinn photo

MINERAL, Wash. – I spent last Friday and all of Saturday at Washington state’s Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, where 20 of us steam locomotive enthusiasts were fortunate enough to witness the spectacle of four vintage logging locomotives in operation at once. Against a backdrop of snow covered peaks, fir, and yellowish Alder trees, a 2-8-2, a rare Willamette, a Climax, and a Heisler joined couplers for a Martin Hansen–organized photo charter in the belief that any steam is good, but more steam is better.

The assemblage paraded for us in a show of multiple-engine power that’s rare these days. In weather best described as typical Pacific Northwest (sun, clouds, rain, rotating about every 20 minutes), we witnessed the incredible sight of steam and smoke and the brain-rattling sound of turning gears and crisp exhausts. Four engines, running at once. Four engines, coupled together! Wow! What an achievement!

But this vision of splendor could pale in comparison to what’s ahead. Within a year or two, Mount Rainier Scenic may have as many as six historic locomotives it can put into steam at any time.

In Britain, where railway preservation is a better established part of the culture than it is in North America, steam railways have teased me the last few years by putting together strings of 10 or more locomotives. I’ve seen videos of steam in Eastern Europe, where multiple engines roll for a festival crowd, one after another. But here in the U.S., a group of four or more is a real occasion, and an outward sign that something right is happening here: Management, staff, volunteers, equipment, shop, and financial support have come together in common purpose to create something wonderful.

For the record, Mount Rainier’s amazing string of steam featured Polson Logging 2-8-2 No. 70 (our cover subject for the May 2012 issue, thanks to the lens of Mount Rainier Scenic trainman Bob Harbison), a 1922 Baldwin product (and sister to privately owned Rayonier 2-8-2 No. 2 under restoration at Wisconsin’s Mid-Continent Railway Museum); Rayonier Willamette No. 2, the only operating Willamette (basically a Lima Locomotive Works Shay geared locomotive with the refinements of a savvy Portland steel company); Hillcrest Lumber Climax No. 10, one of only two of these Pennsylvania-built geared engines in operation today; and West Fork Lumber Co. Heisler No. 91, a West Coast Special three-truck model.

All of these engines contributed mightily to the deforestation of the Pacific Northwest in the first half of the 20th century, and all four took peculiar paths to preservation in the last half of the 20th century. Today, they call home at what has become the logging railway history center of the West; it’s the counterpart to the East’s Cass Scenic Railroad, the West Virginia logging railroad turned tourist line 49 years ago. Mount Rainier came on the scene 30 years ago, and it has grown and developed ever since into a steam logging railroad mecca. It’s located on part of the former Milwaukee Road Morton Branch, which was a lumber and logging line out of Tacoma, and camp cars from the now-closed Camp Six logging museum in Tacoma have found their way here. When you ride a train of skeleton log cars through the woods or across the Nisqually River, you feel as if you are riding into the forest for another load to take back to the mill. The place just exudes logging railroad history. 

Back to our four-engine line-up: I can think of only four other places that can put that many engines into steam at once: Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania; Cass Scenic; and the two big Colorado narrow gauge operations: Cumbres & Toltec Scenic and Durango & Silverton. Strasburg’s fleet is an assemblage of engines that ran in Colorado, Virginia, and Canada, but they’ve been together for so long that they feel as if they’re one herd. Cass’ logging engines are drawn from around the country, but they all have the feel and look of a sisterhood. The two Rio Grande narrow gauge remnants, C&TS and D&S, both field Mikados, all cut from the same cloth. Mount Rainier’s engines are all loggers, pulled from different companies and each from a different manufacturer and with different power trains. Each engine retains the feel, flavor, lettering, and decorative aspects that made it unique.

Four operable steam locomotives is an amazing accomplishment, but wait. If you enter the compact shop in Mineral, Wash., General Manager Brian Wise and Chief Mechanical Officer Stathi Pappas are busy with repairs to another logger, Hammond Lumber Co. 2-8-2T No. 17. This tank engine has been a Mount Rainer Scenic staple since the mid-1990s, and she’s in for her 1,472-day inspection, stripped down to bare metal, naked as a jaybird. But not for long. She should be finished later this year, Pappas says. In another building nearby, work is on going on Pappas’ own locomotive, a 1909 Porter 0-4-0T that worked for the cement plant on Southern Pacific’s Santa Cruz (Calif.) Branch and then became a billboard for a chicken restaurant in Stockton, Calif. The tank engine is now known as The Chiggin’. Pappas, who grew up in Stockton, recalls it from his childhood, got inspired by John and Barney Gramling’s success with Flagg Coal Co. 0-4-0T No. 75, and has made it into his personal mission. I have every faith that Wise and Pappas will get the 17 and The Chiggin’ running sooner than later. They even talk about turning their attention to another Mount Rainier Scenic veteran and one of the West’s most famous geared engines, Pickering Lumber Co., No. 11, a Pacific Coast Shay. Ambitious? You bet. But you can tell: They’re having fun, keeping all these amazing engines alive, sharing this history, and impressing visitors with their abilities.

This shop has long held a reputation for productivity. Twenty years ago, before his untimely death, Jack Anderson cranked out one engine after another from a building that doesn’t look big enough to service a school bus.  In fact, in 1997 Jack Anderson ran a train at Mount Rainier Scenic with five steam locomotives, all of which had been restored by Jack at the Mount Rainier shops! Today, Wise and Pappas, with the support of Mount Rainier Scenic’s patron, Tom Murray, have once again patented that formula. They are continuing a fine tradition here.

Of course, you have to ask, does any tourist railroad or museum need four operable engines, much less six, or seven this day and age? Probably not. Mount Rainier needs two on a regular basis, one to cover its regular tourist trains out of Elbe, Wash., and one to serve as a backup for the inevitable breakdown. The Mount Rainier Scenic also takes a train down Tacoma Rail tracks to Tacoma a couple of times each year, so it needs an engine for that service, and one to cover it as well. The rest of the engines are just gray, excess, overachievement, smart planning, or bravado, depending on your viewpoint.

A few years ago, before the Mount Washington Cog Railway decided to go bio-diesel, it rostered the most operable steam locomotives in one place in North America. Today, five operations nationwide can muster four engines at once. Soon, one of them may take the lead in an out of the way corner of America with a peculiar band of misfits that march to their own beat.

View more photos from Jim's trip to the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad.

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