Even though it’s 85 years old, you would swear the 2-8-2T, No. 17 locomotive just rolled off the assembly line.
After three years of work and more than $100,000, volunteers and a handful of employees of the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad (MRSR) in Mineral, Lewis County, restored the antique locomotive just in time for tourist season.
“It’s basically a brand-new engine,” MRSR Executive Director Wayne Rankin said. “We overhauled just about everything and built a lot of the parts by hand.”
No. 17 is truly one of a kind.
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Built in 1929, it was the last of the model 2-8-2T manufactured by American Locomotive. Out of the 22 produced, just six are in existence and only the No. 17 is still rolling.
New, it sold for about $25,000. Today, it is valued at about $500,000.
Quick and fuel efficient, it lived its life as a workhorse of the logging industry in Oregon and California, towing log cars to and from forests and sawmills. In the 1940s, an epic forest fire burned away the track and two railroad bridges and left it stranded in a mountainous part of the redwood forest.
It sat for nearly 25 years before an intrepid logger built a road to the 17, disassembled it and hauled it to his own sawmill. He later ran a tourist railroad until the oil embargo of the 1970s wiped out his customer base and he was forced to sell. Tacoma lumberman and MRSR founder Tom Murray Jr. bought the No. 17 and two other engines. Now it will live out its days hauling tourists on the weekends.
The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) requires locomotive boilers be rebuilt every 15 years. Before the FRA rewrote the rules in 2000, steam-engine boilers had to be rebuilt every five years to the tune of $60,00-$100,000 each.
But those regulations were based on steel and welding technology from the 1920s. Modern material manufacturing and testing enabled the FRA to stretch out rebuilds to every 15 years.
Those changes are making it easier for tourist railways and nonprofits such as MRSR to reignite the boilers on steam engines throughout the United States, but the lack of knowledgeable manpower is keeping it difficult.
Brian Wise led the restoration efforts for the 2-8-2T and is the director of operations and restorations at the MRSR. He’s spent most of his life around trains.
Finding parts for antiquated locomotives is relatively easy. Metal plumbing is available everywhere, and there’s a couple businesses that specialize in old steam engines. The rest could be made in-house. It’s the knowledge that’s hard to come by.
“Most anybody can measure, figure out the clearance, and put grease on things, but what’s hard is to find a person that really understands how the parts work together in harmony and how a steam locomotive is supposed to run,” Wise said. “I’m fearful that not enough 20-somethings are around to learn how to do this.”