Seattle’s beloved and long-lost steam locomotive is heading home

Apr 26, 2023, 8:56 AM | Updated: 10:22 pm

A beloved, giant artifact that was displayed at the Woodland Park Zoo for nearly 30 years – before it was unceremoniously sold off and shipped out of state decades ago – is on its way home to the Seattle area.

In 1953, a massive Baldwin locomotive, built in Philadelphia in 1907, was retired after more than 40 years in service to the Great Northern Railway, including much of it in the Evergreen State.

Fortunately, a genuine newsreel narrator was there to describe what happened next.

“An iron horse returns to pasture with full honors,” the old-timey narrator intones over the grainy black-and-white footage. “The last of the Great Northern steam locomotives, now replaced by diesels, becomes a monument to bygone railroading days, a relic of the past. Presented to Seattle’s Woodland Park, old 1246 will ride the rails no more, but she’ll be a playground for a new generation born and bred to diesels, radar, and [the] atom bomb.”

Old number 1246 was a popular visual icon and sometimes play structure at the zoo for nearly 30 years.

But then, in 1980, they got rid of it. The zoo was evolving from an amusement park to a conservation organization, and so the locomotive had to go. It almost went to MOHAI in Montlake but was instead sold for $1,500 to a collector named Fred Kepner in Merrill, Ore.

And there it sat. And sat. And sat.

Until executive director Richard Anderson of the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie worked his magic.

“We have big exciting news today,” Anderson told KIRO Newsradio. “We are repatriating the Great Northern Railway steam locomotive 1246, known popularly to people of a certain age as the Woodland Park Zoo steam locomotive that used to be at the south entrance to the zoo.”

KIRO Newsradio first did a deep dive into the history of locomotive 1246 three years ago, but Anderson has been coveting the iron giant for a whopping 27 years. He says he tried multiple times to make a deal to buy 1246 from Kepner, who, in 2020, was asking $45,000 for it.

Anderson says he made offer after offer to Kepner over that 27 year period.

“But we could never agree on the terms and conditions,” Anderson said. “He seemed like a very nice man, and it was always enjoyable to talk to him, but the terms and conditions seemed to change a little bit in each phone conversation.

“With due respect to him, it was very much like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”

But Kepner passed away, and the locomotive was acquired by the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad in Garibaldi, Ore. They had legal possession, but they didn’t move it – it was still sitting in Merrill, Ore. – until Tuesday morning.

Now, it’s on its way via truck to the Northwest Railway Museum Snoqualmie, and no cash was exchanged. Instead, Anderson traded one of his museum’s locomotives which spent its working life primarily in Oregon – so now, each locomotive will have returned to a more historically appropriate location.

And though no cash changed hands, it is pretty expensive for all the cranes and trucks required to move something that big and that heavy. Old number 1246 weighs a whopping 140 tons.

Meanwhile, another local railroad expert and history enthusiast who’s pretty excited about these developments is Gus Melonas.

Melonas is from an old railroad family, and he’s a retired former spokesman for BNSF Railway who is now doing work for them as a consultant. Railroading is in his blood.

“Steam locomotives disappeared in the 40s and 50s with the conversion to the diesel locomotives, and they’re gone [and] few exist,” Melonas told KIRO Newsradio. “So to bring it back is really exciting.

“It’s exciting for me, for sure,” Melonas continued. “When it was on display, I remember it at the Woodland Park Zoo, we would come up from Vancouver.”

Old number 1246, says Melonas, “would get as much attention as the monkey cage or the elephants.”

As for what comes next, Anderson says the first step is to celebrate bringing home an iconic piece of Northwest railroad history.

But it’s not all fun and games just yet.

“Our next step will be to conduct an assessment on the locomotive to determine what its actual condition is,” Anderson said. “We don’t know what its highest and best use is yet until we complete that study, but it is likely that we will pursue a listing on the King County Landmarks Register” to have it designated as a historic landmark.

Then, the beloved old steam locomotive might take one of two possible routes.

“We will also look at whether it’s feasible to exhibit this in a building,” Anderson said, “or to even consider operating it at some point in the future.”

Also in the works by Northwest Railway Museum is the acquisition of the correct “tender” – the railcar behind the locomotive which carries fuel – to match with the old number 1246. The tender which was displayed at Woodland Park Zoo was not historically accurate, Anderson told KIRO Newsradio.

“It was a tender that was used for a brief period of time following an accident and was not historically what operated with this particular locomotive,” Anderson said. “With this deal with Oregon Coast, we were able to locate a correct tender, and we will be moving that at a separate time to reunite with the locomotive.”

That old number 1246 might someday steam up and down the rails of the Northwest Railway Museum is an exciting prospect, and even just preparing it for static display is going to be an expensive proposition.

The Northwest Railway Museum is a non-profit organization that depends on private and public grants and donations from individuals in order to operate its programs and maintain its priceless collection. Anderson says that any and all contributions in support of 1246 or the museum’s other activities are always welcome.

As mentioned above, the move from Oregon to Snoqualmie is in itself not an inexpensive process.

On that front, KIRO Newsradio is able to share breaking news Wednesday from Melonas at BNSF.

“I just learned this morning,” Melonas told KIRO Newsradio, “and we’re really excited to announce that BNSF is contributing $10,000 to help make this move possible.”

And news like this, Anderson might say, is pretty much the opposite of nailing Jell-O to the wall.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, 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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