What we lost with the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The news that American Heritage Railroads is closing permanently the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad is a tragedy on numerous levels. It’s an incredibly beautiful railroad in the Pacific Northwest with deep forests, beautiful steams, and plentiful wildlife. The railroad has some fantastic bridges curved wooden bridges as well as a long deck girder bridge across the Nisqually River. Add to that steep grades, sharp curves, and Milwaukee Road heritage, and you get it. It was a great show.


But it was so much more.


In a region with a rich railroad heritage worth saving and preserving, it was the operating museum of Pacific Northwest logging railroads with a star-studded celebrity list of steam power from all three types of geared engines in operation plus the only operating example of the local homemade favorite, the Shay knockoff, the Willamette; tank engines, rod tender engines. Amazing talent in steam restoration and operations worked there: Jack Anderson, Brian Wise, Steven Butler, Stathi Pappas, Blackie Blackmon, Tim Daubert, Scott Wickert, Harold Borovec, to name a few. The railroad knew how to throw a party, with two, three, four, and sometimes even five locomotives in steam at one time.


The railroad was the West Coast equivalent of West Virginia’s Cass Scenic Railroad. Both reek of fresh cut timber. The presence of log cars, and wood shavings on the ground just added to the atmosphere. When the railroad staged an event that included a meet at Park Junction, it was like stepping back to the early 20th century when steam was king and deforesting America was in its heyday. We lost a real glimpse into that world.


My first visit in 1991 was made when I took the Morton dinner train behind Porter-built 2-8-2 No. 5. On a 1995 visit, my pal Richard Morse and I marveled at all of the big three types of geared engines, the Shay, the Heisler, and the Climax, in steam. One of these, Pickering Shay No. 11, a Pacific Coast Shay, had been pointed out to me at an early age as a special locomotive with a stainless-steel boiler jacket and a good disposition. That was the time when the railroad surprised a group of us with newly restored 2-8-2T No. 17. It was also the time when I saw Master Mechanic Jack Anderson, at the end of three busy days of operation, move another locomotive into the shop to begin work on it at 7 p.m. on a Sunday. It was the stuff legends are made of. The lonely outposts of Mineral and Elbe, Washington, were pure gold. The railroad was begun as the dream of one man, Tom Murray, whose family had logged the area in the days of steam, and Tom wanted to preserve that heritage for future generations. It was Tom's generosity that gave us all the show that MRSR was for all these years.


My good friend Martin Hansen was often the host of steam locomotive shows at Mount Rainier, and year after year, I’d return to find something new restored or on its way. Martin would conduct the trains, and the show would commence. Gears clattering, stacks rattling, pops lifting. Wheels turning. A true glimpse into the history of Pacific Northwest logging railroads. Too good to be true, was often my reaction. On Tuesday, that turned out to be the case. It was good while it lasted.





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