A group of Alaskans have started a $1 million project to restore Locomotive 557, the Alaska Railroad's last operating steam engine. Dubbed the Locomotive 557 Restoration Co., the group is working to resurrect a part of Alaska history.
Crews are working on the locomotive at a former lumber warehouse in Wasilla, across from Fred Meyer. You can visit the facility on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. A volunteer will walk visitors through the facility and "likely hit them up for a donation," said Pat Durand, president of Locomotive 557 Restoration. The project cost about $1 million, he said, which includes transporting the locomotive and the restoration itself.
Engine 557 is an S-160 class consolidation 2-8-0 locomotive built between 1942 and 1945 for heavy freight work in Europe during World War 2. The digits 2-8-0 refer to the locomotive's wheel arrangement. The engines are also known as GI Consolidations, or Gypsy Rose Lee locomotives. More than 2,100 engines were built and 12 ended up in Alaska. They eventually reached every continent except Australia and Antarctica. There are five left in America and none are operational -- yet.
When 557 arrived in Alaska in December 1944, it was modified for service in a colder climate: larger compound air compressors were mounted on the front pilot, steam coils were installed in the cabs for heating, and seasonal snowplows were built. After the war, the locomotive was kept around to help in Nenana, where the Tanana and Nenana rivers regularly ?ooded the town and the rail yard. Diesel-traction motors can't operate in water, but the 557 steam engine could easily cross two feet of water.
The locomotive made its last run in Alaska on Sept. 5, 1960, to the state fair in Palmer. There are some gaps in 557's history, Durand said. Sometime in the 1960s, it was sold to Monte Holm, who owned an iron and steel company in Moses Lake, Wash. After Holm's death, friends of his estate bought the locomotive and donated it to the Alaska Railroad, which handed the 557 over to the restoration company.
Crews prepared 557 in late 2011 for its trip back to Alaska. They placed the locomotive on a flat car provided by the Alaska Railroad, then loaded it on a barge bound for Alaska. It was transported to Wasilla, and the restoration began in August, Durand said.
The locomotive will hopefully come out of retirement by summer 2015, he said. The project depends largely on donations. Gifts of $25 or more are matched dollar for dollar by the Rasmuson Foundation, which has committed $350,000 to the project.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com