CHELATCHIE PRAIRIE — Dangling from a web of heavy chains, the 2,000-gallon water tank looked like a gargantuan horseshoe — the biggest good-luck charm you’ve ever seen — until it swung sideways, revealing its upside-down U-shape to be yards long. It’s almost as long as the locomotive engine it’s been sitting upon and powering across northeastern Clark County.
Chelatchie Prairie Railroad volunteers gathered on a recent Saturday morning at a cramped rail yard near the base of remote Tumtum Mountain to get some heavy lifting done — literally.
A crane pulled apart components of the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad’s main attraction, its 1929 steam engine, which has been sidelined since spring because of overdue inspection and repair work. The steam engine likely will stay sidelined through much or even all of next year.
The all-volunteer nonprofit railroad group worries that its extended absence, and the astronomical price of the mandatory federal inspection — $200,000 or more — could break the bank, spokesman Doug Auburg said. The group launched a GoFundMe donation page to solicit public contributions.
Chelatchie Prairie’s other working engine, a 1941 diesel locomotive, has taken over the railway’s 13-mile round-trip run between Yacolt Station and Moulton Falls Regional Park. The diesel is now driving the group’s most popular rides of the year, its Christmas tree excursions, Auburg said.
“Federal Railroad Administration rules say steam locomotives and traction engines must be thoroughly inspected every 15 years,” he said. “We have to inspect the boiler with ultrasound, square foot by square foot. All the tubes will be taken out and we’ll physically inspect the interior.”
Given that the group’s annual budget is about $80,000, the repair job “is going to cost us our whole treasury,” Auburg said. “It’s a significant expense and it will be a slow process.”
Why so thorough? “Because it’s a bomb. You get high-pressure steam in there — if the containment vessel fails, it explodes,” Auburg said.
People have been killed in accidents like that, he said, so the 15-year inspection mandate seems reasonable to this group. Volunteers will take the opportunity to do more than inspect the boiler. They plan upgrades for both the guts and the furnishings of the 90-year-old engine — including cleaning the oil tank and replacing much of the cab’s ancient sheet metal and wooden flooring.
“It’ll be better than before,” Auburg said.
Man of steam
Clambering atop that cab was contractor Luke Johnson — who said he felt the flimsy old metal sway. “It was like riding ocean waves,” he said.
Johnson is the owner of Toutle Valley Locomotive Works, a business that keeps him traveling the West Coast restoring, maintaining and operating vintage steam engines. His employers range from shoestring community groups like Chelatchie Prairie, all the way up to television and movie producers in Hollywood. Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” and “The Lone Ranger,” starring Johnny Depp, are a couple of big-budget features he’s worked on, he said.
For “The Lone Ranger,” he said, “I helped design two fake steam locomotives and I was the engineer on a real locomotive. When you see the train go by, that’s me.”
Johnson grew up in Longview, where boyhood fascination with a leftover locomotive in a city park prompted him to query the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad in Elbe. That set in motion what became Johnson’s life’s work. By the time he left the Mt. Rainier organization in 2006, Johnson was chief mechanical officer.
Why did Johnson become a man of steam? Partially the history, but mostly the machinery, he said.
“Steam is what got us to the West Coast 150 years ago,” he said. “It used to take four or five months, then it went to three days.
“These machines don’t hide anything,” he added. “Everything is exposed. All the running gear, all the valve gear — it’s all out in the open for you to see.”
Johnson stayed busy striding around and climbing up and down, checking details and requesting specific tools like a surgeon: “Ladder!” “Hammer!” “Welder!”
Diesel engines get inspected too, but it’s a much simpler process.
“It’s an internal combustion engine and there’s no danger of explosion,” Auburg said. “That’s why railroads went from steam to diesel.”
That safety improvement also hollowed out the ranks of steam engine experts, Johnson said. That’s good for his bottom line, but bad for the overall steam-engine scene.
“When they got rid of these machines, the workforce went with it,” he said. “For steam you need boilermakers, electricians, pipe fitters, machinists and helpers for all of those. For diesel, you’ve got a machinist and an electrician and that’s it. You’ve cut the workforce in half.”
The dozen volunteers who showed up at that morning’s work party scurried for tools, moved equipment, and provided additional guidance-by-rope for cargo swinging through the air.
“I wish we had this many volunteers every time we did something,” group president Randy Williams said. “Volunteers are hard to come by.”
There are only about 15 regular, reliable volunteers with the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad, he said, and their average age is getting up there. For every volunteer who likes getting greasy, there’s another with aging elbows and knees who has graduated to customer service. And nobody loves coming out for track maintenance, a necessary but unglamorous way to spend your volunteer time, he said.
Many Chelatchie Prairie volunteers are lifelong railway nerds. The affectionate slang is “foamers,” meaning they foam at the mouth at any nearby train.
“I’ve always been interested in all things train, but I was just a model railroader. Then I took a ride on this line and I guess I got hooked,” Auburg said.
“I went on a Mother’s Day run with the family and I got volunteered,” said Williams, who retired from a career in health care technology. “I like to be outdoors, I like meeting people, and in my family it was always important to volunteer.”
Williams used to volunteer his own children to help out, he said. The one task they really enjoyed was pruning vegetation away from the line while riding atop the diesel engine as it inched along.
“It’s a pretty nice view of the world from up there,” he said.
Its tanks and cab set aside, the steam engine was towed and nudged by the diesel into the rail yard’s tall engine house. That’s where it will sit until further notice.
The steam engine, known as Old No. 10, started its life hauling lumber for companies in Oregon and then California. It was retired in the 1960s and set on display in a Fortuna, Calif., public park by a local Kiwanis Club. Then it was purchased by a Shelton railroad enthusiast. The Chelatchie Prairie group leased it from him in the early 2000s, worked on it for years, returned it to service and wound up purchasing it; they’re still paying off a $75,000 loan on the purchase, Auburg said.
The current inspection and repair job is expected to cost as much as $200,000 in labor and materials, and take up to a whole year of weekend volunteer weekend parties, supervised by Johnson. That’s an educated guess, volunteers said. They won’t know the real extent of the old engine’s needs and expenses until they dig into the job. That’s why they’re hoping the lucky shape of that water tank really does bring some good fortune their way.
“A lot of groups I work with have some sort of paid staff,” Johnson said. Chelatchie Prairie “might be the only one I know of anywhere who don’t have any staff at all.”
Customers love the very idea of steam-train rides much better than diesel-train rides. In 2018, the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad ran its two engines a nearly equivalent number of times, carrying approximately 8,000 riders in all, Auburg said — but the steam train sold approximately 20 percent more tickets than the diesel.
“The steam engine brings more people,” said Kerry Barton, the group’s publicity and advertising manager. “I think this will change how many people we run over the coming year.”
“People are nostalgic for steam,” Auburg said. “Steam is more romantic. We’re supported by ticket sales and we’re hoping this doesn’t make too much of a difference to people who want to come ride the line.
“It’s just as fun no matter what,” he promised.