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.