Vintage locomotive comes home to Northwest Railway Museum

Nov 3, 2021, 9:58 AM

The Northwest Railway Museum is completing a trade this week that will send a 1951 diesel engine from their collection to Nevada, and bring a 1940 locomotive from Longview to its original home in King County.

With big trailers and even bigger cranes, work has been underway the past few days at the Port of Longview and at the museum in Snoqualmie, which traces its roots back to 1957 when it was founded as the all-volunteer Puget Sound Railway Historical Association.

In their 64 years of operation, the group has grown tremendously, particularly in the past few decades. They have evolved and professionalized, and are well known for the restored depot they call home in Snoqualmie. The depot features indoor and outdoor exhibits, and is also where the Northwest Railway Museum’s regular excursion trains depart. A mile or so away from the depot on nearby Stone Quarry Road, the museum operates a restoration facility in a train shed they built about 20 years ago. Like the depot, it’s also open to the public.

And it was almost 20 years ago that the first part of this week’s locomotive swap became a gleam in the eye of Northwest Railway Museum director Richard Anderson, when he was at a conference and ran into Mark Bassett, president of the Nevada Northern Railway Foundation.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” Anderson told KIRO Radio earlier this week. “But we’re sending a locomotive back to its ‘home road’ and the museum that represents that area.”

After years of planning, what the Northwest Railway Museum is bidding farewell to is a six-axle road switcher built by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) in Schenectady, New York, in 1951.

The final destination for the locomotive – which will be carried by massive truck – is Ely, Nevada. That’s home to the Nevada Northern Railway Foundation, and it’s where the brand-new locomotive was originally delivered 70 years ago.

“It was purchased by [a mining company known as] Kennecott for operations on the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, Nevada, to haul the ore trains from the copper mine in Ruth to the smelter in McGill,” said Mark Bassett. “The locomotive was purchased in 1951 to replace the steam locomotives, and it has managed to survive now for 70 years.”

“What we want to do is bring it home,” Bassett said, and restore it.

The 1951 locomotive – known as the “201” – was donated to the museum in Snoqualmie in 1983, where it was used for years to haul their popular excursion trains.

Anderson says it was Bassett who first suggested that the 201 return to Nevada.

“And this was about the time that we were acquiring two smaller and more fuel-efficient locomotives to pull the regular trains up here, two little Baldwin’s that served here, historically, in this region,” Anderson said. “It just seemed like such a great idea. But we never would have guessed that would have taken this long to come to fruition.”

The locomotive Northwest Railway Museum gets as part of the deal was also built in New York, but it’s a little bit older, and, unlike the 201, it has a direct local connection.

“Part of this whole transaction is this smaller locomotive that is more significant to Washington state history is moving up to the museum here,” Anderson said. “It’s also built by the American Locomotive Company, or ALCO for short, but was delivered here in February or March of 1940.”

Along with its local pedigree, the smaller locomotive – known as the “125″ – has other interesting aspects to its history.

“It was only the second diesel locomotive on the Northern Pacific, and it switched the docks along the Seattle waterfront,” Anderson said, and also served at King Street Station. “And then later it was sold to the Walla Walla Valley Railway in Walla Walla, so they could shut down their electric railway.”

“How sad is that?” Anderson continued. “It would be more likely today that we would be shutting down the diesel train to put in the electric railway.”

Anderson says the old Northern Pacific locomotive is 43 feet long and weighs about 200,000 pounds. It’s been stored by the Port of Longview for more than a decade, but was actually in service there as recently as 2004 when it was 64 years old. The Northwest Railway Museum purchased it from the Port, and then Bassett and the Nevada Northern Railway Foundation agreed to cover the transportation costs in trade for the 1951 locomotive.

Along with having a direct local connection, the mere existence of a diesel locomotive back in 1940 – which is still considered by many to be the Golden Age of steam trains – is a pretty radical thing.

“I think it is reasonable to say that in 1940 a diesel was considered experimental,” Anderson said. “There was a lot of compelling evidence that this was the future, but it was still something that was not necessarily accepted by everyone.”

The particular diesel locomotives involved in this swap were built mostly for low-speed, short distance operations, such switching boxcars in the railyard and assembling big freight trains. While they may not be as glamorous or exciting as the streamlined steam (and, later, diesel) engines made for pulling long-distance freight or passenger trains, they are an important part of railroad history and the early diesel era.

The “201” – the 70-year old diesel locomotive headed back to Nevada – is also pretty darn big.

“The locomotive is approximately 65 feet long and 14 feet high,” Anderson said. “But the real kicker is that it weighs something in the neighborhood of 325,000 pounds. So we just don’t have highways that are normally built to carry that sort of mass, so this massive truck is coming here in components.”

Just how massive?

“They don’t even operate this truck normally by itself on the highway,” Anderson said. “It’s coming here on three semi-trailers and is being reassembled here in Snoqualmie.”

Moving the locomotives by rail wasn’t an option, says Bassett, because both museums in Snoqualmie and in Nevada are “landlocked,” that is, they are not connected to outside rails beyond their own now closed loops or rail.

Bassett drove up from Nevada, and is in Snoqualmie to work alongside Anderson as the big cranes and the big trailers get the job of locomotive swapping done. Bassett is clearly pretty excited to see a decade or more of planning come together.

“November 3 is when we’re going to do the great switcheroo,” Bassett said, chuckling deeply at his word choice. “The cranes are there, the trailer is there, and we plan to load locomotive 201 first and get it on the trailer and have it clear the track. And then, once that is done, the other locomotive that’s replacing it is already there on a trailer from its trip up from Longview.”

“The cranes will pick it up and put it back on the rails so it’s at its new home, too,” Bassett said.

Bassett will be driving back to Ely, Nevada, as part of the convoy for the 855-mile trip – which will be done in overnight hours to avoid traffic and to avoid causing delays as the big rig negotiates bridges, mountain passes, and other highway obstacles.

As cool as an old locomotive or caboose is just sitting along the tracks to be admired by passersby, it takes a serious approach to fundraising and smart management to make sure that these giant artifacts don’t simply rust away.

Some may remember 30 years ago when much of the Northwest Railway Museum’s collection was parked on the tracks in Snoqualmie doing just that – rusting away. Anderson has been on the job for 25 years and deserves a lot of credit for managing that collection, shedding excess artifacts and acquiring new ones – and for marshaling volunteers, donors, and other resources to build a real first-class operation that’s truly a community asset.

Along with organizations such as the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive in Burien, the Northwest Railway Museum plays its own specific role in an “ecology” of preserving and sharing railroad history. Documents and photos are critically important, of course, but Richard Anderson – who earlier in his career worked as brakeman and conductor in his native British Columbia – believes it’s also worth going to great lengths in order to devote resources to the care of big, heavy, and basically highly unwieldy train cars and locomotives.

“There’s something that an artifact does that a photograph can never do,” Anderson said. “There’s the ‘seeing is believing’ when you’re standing on the floor of the exhibit hall, and this locomotive is towering above you more than 14 feet. That experience just can’t be conveyed with a photograph, or a movie, for that matter.”

“These are tangible examples of our collective history and demonstrate how we move from effectively walking on foot or traveling in horse conveyances, to the modern transportation system we have today,” Anderson said.

Anderson says the locomotive from Longview – the 125, for those keeping track – should be on public display sometime in the next few weeks. Before that happens, the Northwest Railway Museum has steam trains operating this weekend, and plenty of railroad artifacts to see. They are also gearing up for their annual Santa Train to start up again for the holiday season.

Meanwhile, railroad history buffs don’t need to wait for Santa – the arrival this week of the old 125 at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie means Christmas is already here.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Vintage locomotive comes home to Northwest Railway Museum