The world was at war when a coal-powered steam locomotive, Alaska Railroad No. 557, arrived in Alaska in December 1944. The engine moved troops and military equipment before shifting to civilian service during peacetime and, eventually, being sold to a private museum in the Lower 48.
On Tuesday, it returned to Anchorage. A small crowd of railroad officials, workers and veterans was on hand as it rolled up to the Historic Railroad Depot. Among them was Weaver Franklin, who once drove 557 and, by his own account, "every other steam engine on the Alaska Railroad at the time."
The open cab was no problem, he said, even in the coldest subzero Interior weather. The boiler created an enormous amount of heat. "It was quite warm in there," he recalled.
According to Alaska railroad enthusiast and historian Pat Durand, 557 was the last steam locomotive in regular service on the railroad, kept around for excursions -- like the annual trip to the State Fair in Palmer -- and emergencies. It "could easily ford two feet of water over the rails," he said, when floods stopped the newfangled diesel locomotive with its smaller wheels.
But the age of steam passed. The antique locomotive, unable to move in reverse or make it up steeper grades managed by modern engines, was sold for scrap in 1964. It went on display at the House of Poverty Museum in Moses Lake, Wash. With the death of the owner -- a hobo turned millionaire, according to press reports -- it again went up for sale.
Alaska transportation entrepreneurs Jim and Vic Jansen purchased 557. They donated it to the Alaska Railroad with the understanding that it be restored to operating condition and brought back into service.
The locomotive was moved from Whittier to Anchorage strapped to a flatcar. But experts say prospects are good for getting it up and running again.
The restoration firm Wasatch Railroad Contractors evaluated 557 while it was still in Washington and determined that it would require minimal repair.
"For the most part the locomotive requires a good cleaning, dismantling, inspection, reassembly and paint job," they concluded.
Estimates for putting 557 back on the rails run between $200,000 and $500,000. The railroad will soon launch a community fundraising drive to underwrite the project.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.