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.”