SP&S 700 locomotive boiler work looks to future as team of volunteers puts on some steam
It’s a well-known fact that Santa Claus loves steam trains, and so does the dedicated crew rebuilding one of the nation’s largest and best-preserved steam locomotives.
The SP&S 700 pulled thousands of passenger trains through Vancouver and up the Columbia River Gorge to Pasco and Spokane from 1938 until its final journey in 1956. Restored by volunteers and restored to running condition in 1990, it’s been visited and photographed by thousands of people who appreciate steam locomotives, even if they may be too young to remember them in daily service.
This particular locomotive is one of three owned by the city of Portland. It lives at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, where it is tended to by a group of dedicated volunteers at the nonprofit Pacific Railroad Preservation Association.
It was last under steam in 2015, when its 15-year safety certification from the Federal Railroad Administration expired, forcing a tear-down, inspection and reassembly of its boiler. Compressed steam superheated to as hot as 900 degrees is an incredibly powerful force, so the government requires periodic inspections and certifications to keep a National Register of Historic Places landmark like the SP&S 700 from becoming a rolling bomb.
Steve Sedaker, a Vancouver man who is the president of the preservation association, said the boiler project is still a few months from completion. As with other enterprises, COVID-19 has set back the restoration work for most of this year.
When completed, dozens of people will have contributed to the boiler rebuild, including volunteers, commercial businesses and a machining class at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, Ore. The cost of the project is close to $225,000, paid for with donations and grants.
Randy Woehl, the association’s vice president, has been managing the work crew. Woehl said the process started with removing the metal jacketing and mineral wool insulation to get to the complicated array of metal tubes and valves that form the boiler. Almost 1,000 metal tubes had to be removed for inspection from the inside of the boiler.
“It looked like Swiss cheese in there,” Sedaker said.
Once the tear-down was completed, the volunteers had to measure the thickness of the metal of all the critical parts to make sure it hadn’t become critically thin. They used a hand-held ultrasound unit that is about the size of a voltmeter an electrician might use. Some of the readings had to be made as close as every four inches, and each measurement had to be recorded on a large schematic of the boiler to submit with the recertification application.
“That was a major piece of the work,” Sedaker said, taking almost 18 months to complete.
At the end of the process, the news was positive: The 700 was in pretty good shape, with only some metal in the firebox needing to be replaced.
The necessary sections were fabricated with the help of a Portland boiler repair shop. While the locomotive lay in pieces, many other parts were replaced, too, including some special stay bolts that had to be handcrafted with help from the college machinists.
The next big hurdle for the project is a hydrostatic test, which could take place as soon as next month. That’s where the mechanics fill the rebuilt system with water and check it for leaks. Then the entire locomotive — 110 feet, 6 3/4 inches, including its tender — can be reassembled and tested, and the certification paperwork completed and sent to the feds.
The goal is for the locomotive to be back in running condition by Christmas 2021. If so, look for Santa to be all aboard.