Chelatchie Prairie Railroad steam locomotive ready to roll again

Train tours through Clark County's north woods start May 11

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



■ What: Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.

■ Where: 207 N. Railroad Ave., Yacolt.

■ Diesel Fares: Adults, $15; seniors 60 and older, $14; youths 5 to 12, $10; children 2 to 4, $8; children younger than 2, free.

■ Steam Fares: Adults, $18; seniors 60 and older, $17; youths 5 to 12, $13; children 2 to 4, $11; children younger than 2, free.

■ Christmas Tree Specials: December packages including four passenger tickets and one tree start at $55.

■ Information:; 360-686-3559.

AMBOY — Luke Johnson's excursion ride doubles as a steam-powered time machine.

It will transport passengers seven miles through Clark County's north woods on a journey full of the sensations, sights and sounds of the 1870s.

Johnson will be at the throttle of the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad's steam locomotive for the season-opening tours on Mother's Day weekend, May 11-12.

While the locomotive was built for a Northwest lumber company in 1929, "it's 1800s technology," Johnson said.

The new season will give the steam locomotive a chance to get back on the track after a five-year layoff. It's been sidelined by mechanical problems, as well as an ownership dispute.

Johnson, who also heads the restoration team, was in the engine house recently with fellow volunteers Jeff Davis and Dan Volker as they prepared old No. 10 for its comeback.

It's been a long process: You can't just run down to the hardware store to pick up steam-engine parts, so they fabricated almost all of them in their shop.

That's the difference between maintaining the railroad's two locomotives, Davis said. The other engine is a 72-year-old diesel, which has been handling all the tour runs while the steam engine was sidelined.

Easier to make parts

"The diesel is a 1941. It's harder to get those parts than it is to make these," Davis said, nodding toward the steam engine. "With this, if you break a pin, you go to a lathe."

Not that it's easy work … or fast.

"I sat at a milling machine for three or four weeks," Johnson said. "Week after week, and nothing happens."

Then, Johnson said: "Boom!" They could shift from machining to installing.

The engine has a 2-8-2 configuration, which translates to two smaller wheels up front, eight big drive wheels on four axles providing the power, and two smaller wheels in back, under the engineer's cab.

The biggest repair challenge involved a drive axle, where a part had been ground down. It's supposed to be a half-inch thick, but when they looked at it, "you could shave with it," Johnson said.

"There is only one thing we did not do in-house," Johnson said, and that's only because "we don't have a big enough lathe."

It's old-school engineering: too old, according to some.

"It's not NASA," Johnson noted. "Some guys will say it's too sloppy."

His response?

"Dude! They've been doing this for 200 years: It will work."

Operating a steam locomotive is a step back in time, too. You don't just turn the key and shift into drive. To generate that steam, Johnson has to ignite the oil-burner and heat 2,000 gallons of water.

"It takes 61/2 or seven hours to get it fired, to get it hot enough to do anything," Johnson said. "Sometimes we preheat the water."

And when it's time to shut it down, "You don't put the key on the visor" and leave, Johnson said.

"At the end, we grease it when it's hot, so the grease flows. It's an hour, hour-and-a-half process before we get out the door."

100 hours to 1

With everything that's required to keep an engine in good condition, "it's 100 hours of work per operating hour," Johnson said.

"I didn't believe it," Davis said. "I learned real fast."

Johnson is 33 — the oldest of the three guys in the shop that morning — but he's a steam veteran. He said he started at 14, working as a volunteer on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad.

It's a niche industry, so Johnson stays busy with part-time gigs at four different rail operations in Washington and California. The most prominent is the Fillmore & Western Railway Co.

Based in Fillmore, Calif., it's a successful tourist attraction, and it's also used as a film location for TV shows, commercials and movies.

In addition to providing its passengers with a distinctive sound track, a steam locomotive lets you see the choreography of all those moving parts that make up the 85-ton machine.

And when he's at the throttle, "you can feel it in your feet," Johnson said.

No. 10 doesn't exactly cannon-ball down the track, by the way.

"When it was logging, it did 10 to 15 mph its whole career," Johnson said. "It's not a big fan of going fast."

It's not just the engine that has a top-end limit.

"The track is qualified for 10 mph," said Paul Nasiatka, vice president and spokesman for the nonprofit Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Association.

The two locomotives are slated to share tour duties this season.

The railroad's rolling stock features several passenger-carrying cars, including a regular enclosed coach. An open-air car with bench-type seating offers a good view of the passing landscape, and a circus car is a combination.

"A circus car is open-air with a roof," Nasiatka said. "Riders can stay away from sun and rain or snow, and still be in an outdoor experience. We have two cabooses, and people can ride inside the cupola. We usually run one at a time unless there is a crowd."

More rail cars are being restored by another group of volunteers who enjoy hands-on projects, Nasiatka said: "They don't want to be brakemen, engineers or conductors."


May 11-12, (steam) Mother’s Day Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

May 25, Wine Run, noon.

May 26-27, Memorial Day Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

June 15-16, (steam) Father’s Day Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

June 29, Wine Run, noon.

July 6-7, (steam) Independence Day Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

July 20-21, Train Robbery Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

Aug. 3-4, (steam) Weekend Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

Aug. 17-18, Train Robbery Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

Aug. 31, Sept. 1-2, (steam) Labor Day Weekend Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

Sept. 14, Wine Run, noon.

Sept. 28-29, Diesel Train Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

Oct. 12-13, (steam) Fall Leaves Special, noon, 2:30 p.m.

Oct. 26-27, Headless Horseman Halloween Special, 9:30 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m.

Nov. 30, Wine Run, noon.

Dec. 1, Christmas Tree Special, 9:30 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m.

Dec. 7-8, Christmas Tree Special, 9:30 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m.

Dec. 14-15, Christmas Tree Special, 9:30 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m.

Dec. 21-22, (steam) Christmas Tree Special, 9:30 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m.

View a video on The Columbian's YouTube Channel.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558;;