Volunteers work to restore a piece of Alaska’s railroad history
It’s an iron horse from a bygone era.
Locomotive #557 — the last steam engine to run in the Last Frontier — might not look like much now as it sits deconstructed underneath aging tarps, but you can picture how it looked in its heyday.
“If you imagine the smoke box front, the headlight up at the top, the bell, the generator up on top of the boiler,” Pat Durand explained.
Durand is the president of the Engine 557 Restoration Company. He and two dozen other train enthusiasts are working to get the steam going again.
“It’s a chance to work with a technology that’s completely left us,” Lynn Willis reminisced. “Everything on this is steam or you pull a lever.”
It was one of 2,120 locomotives built from 1942-1945. The engine’s been out of service for almost 60 years and needs a major overhaul.
That means Durand and his crew get a rare glimpse of its inner workings, like the 70-year-old boiler that’s been cleaned out and restored.
“Hopefully no one will ever see the inside of this boiler again after we get the firebox installed and all the tubes installed,” Durand laughed.
After more than 10,000 volunteer hours in the past two years, they’ve stopped counting; it’s truly a labor of love.
“People of my generation, I’m 70 years old,” Durand interjected. “We arrived at the same time steam engines were being phased out of service but there’s a romance to it, it’s infectious if you will.”
It’s not only taken a lot of time, but also a lot of money. By the time it’s finished — hopefully in June 2016 — Durand estimates the project will have cost about $1.2 million, with another $1 million or so in in-kind donations.
“Alaska West Express ships anything anywhere for us,” he explained. “That gets to be major. When you send the drivers to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to be machined, that’s 28,000 pounds coming and going.”
It’s all worth it to get a piece of the Alaska’s history back on the tracks. Durand said the Alaska Railroad plans to attach several old passenger cars to the engine and make trips from Anchorage to Portage.
“It will be a living history lesson,” Willis said. “There are a few of these around the nation and there are people like us who restore them. It’s like how people restore airplanes or restore cars, it’s a chance to have a little bit of history in your presence.”
It won’t be long before the Locomotive #557 is riding the rails right next to the trains of today.
If you’d like to volunteer to help out, visit the Engine 557 Restoration Company website.
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