Steam preservation’s tiny miracles

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, July 3, 2018

J. Neils Lumber No. 4 in Libby, Mont. Photo by Justin Franz.
In the summer of 2018, it can be easy to get discouraged about the state of mainline steam. As Jim Wrinn perfectly put it, the year in steam went from “grand to grim” when Amtrak announced in March that it was drastically altering its policy regarding excursions.  

But a piece on today’s Trains News Wire gives me hope. On Tuesday, the Illinois Railway Museum fired up J. Neils Lumber Co. three-truck Shay No. 5 for the first time in 19 years. No. 5 was built in 1929 and hauled logs out of the woods near Libby, Mont. Amazingly, the Shay in Union, Ill. isn’t the only J. Neils Lumber veteran that is currently under restoration. Some 1,600 miles west, in No. 5’s old stomping grounds, the Heritage Museum in Libby is restorting her sister locomotive, two-truck Shay No. 4. No. 4 began its career working for a logging company in northern Minnesota before being brought to Libby in 1917. It ran in Montana until 1946 when it was put in storage. In the early 1960s, the locomotive was put on display.

A few years ago, some museum volunteers rolled the locomotive into the old J. Neils shop building and started tinkering with it. Last week, when I stopped in to see how they’re doing, the locomotive was stripped down to the boiler and frame. She’s not much to look at right now, but the volunteers are optimistic that someday No. 4 will be fired up and operated on the museum grounds.

The group in Libby doesn’t have a lot of money and, like everyone, they’re starved for funds. But they do have one thing - perhaps the most important ingredient for any successful steam restoration in the 21st Century - they have hope.

While the future of main line steam in unclear right now, be sure to take in and enjoy steam preservation’s tiny miracles scattered all across the country.

For more information about the Heritage Museum visit

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