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May 20, 2022

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SP&S 539 come full circle: Port of Kalama buys steam locomotive

Engine sat in Esther Short Park for 40 years


KALAMA — A steam locomotive and its tender that sat in Vancouver’s Esther Short Park for 40 years will be returned to the Pacific Northwest and displayed at the Port of Kalama after port commissioners agreed this week to purchase it.

The locomotive, the SP&S 539, is a “key piece” of Kalama history, according to the port.

The Northern Pacific Railway led to the creation of the town of Kalama, which was the western terminus of the company’s rail line in the late 19th century. The first spike was driven there in the early 1870s, and within just a few months the working population exploded to approximately 3,500, and soon the town had a motto: “Rail Meets Sail.”

“It will be great to tell that story,” post Executive Director Mark Wilson said.

The commission approved a budget not to exceed $375,000 to buy and ship the locomotive. Wilson said the price of the locomotive is $100,000 and the estimated cost of moving it from Arizona is $163,000. Additional costs will include placing the locomotive into the port’s Interpretive Center.

Wilson said he is seeking a private grant opportunity to help cover some of the cost to ship the locomotive by rail to Kalama.

The locomotive was built in 1917 in Dunkirk, N.Y., and operated by the N.P. and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway, which was incorporated in 1905 as a joint venture by the Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway to build a railroad along the north bank of the Columbia River. Today those tracks are owned by BNSF Railway.

The SP&S 539’s original cost was $36,631, and its total weight when loaded was 266 tons, including 41 tons of water to generate steam.

The locomotive was retired in 1957 after logging some 174,378 miles without a major accident or derailment, according to Columbian archives. It was displayed in Esther Short Park until 1997, when it was moved to Battle Ground for a potential restoration that was never completed. In 2007 it was acquired by the Grand Canyon Railway and moved to Arizona.

The port of Kalama originally planned to place a locomotive in the Interpretive Center when the building opened in 2014. But Wilson said there are only 20 of these steam locomotives in the country, and none was available at the time.

The locomotive’s current owners have kept it in good condition and repainted it, Wilson said.

Despite the price, the commissioners expressed support for the purchase.

“When we built the building, we put the (railroad) ties in with the intent to have it in there,” Commissioner Randy Sweet said. “This sounds like the only chance to make it real.”


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