This newspaper article by Elaine Shein with photos by Mark Rozin was originally published in the Capital Press on May 20, 2005. I originally posted it on my website on June 1, 2005; I had very closely replicated the original layout of the article, but it didn’t translate into this new format.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
MAY 20, 2005
Historic Steam Engine Makes Tracks
The historic 67-year-old No. 700 steam locomotive passes Schreiner's Iris Gardens in Brooks, Ore. Visitors in Salem, Ore. had a chance to tour and learn about the locomotive, one of the largest ever built. Its history included transporting crops throughout the region. Photo by Mark Rozin/Capital Press
Third-largest steam locomotive draws a crowd
Dale Birkholz, left, and Jim Abney check over the Spokane, Portland and Seattle 700 steam locomotive during its visit to Salem last weekend. Birkholz is the vice president of the Pacific Railway Preservation Association and helps as a mechanic and machinist to keep the historic engine in running condition. Abney was the train engineer for the day. The locomotive, built in 1938, is the third-largest operating steam locomotive, and the second-most-powerful operating steam engine in North America. It could haul 2,000 tons of freight, or 1,000 passengers, and could reach speeds of 100 mph. With roller bearings in the wheels, this locomotive has one of the smoothest rides in any locomotive, according to the engineers who operate it.
Story and photos
By ELAINE SHEIN
Capital Press Editor-Publisher
SALEM - Sitting in the warm cab of the third largest operating steam locomotive in North America as it sat on the tracks in Salem, rain drizzling behind him through the open window, Jim Venderbeck shared his passion for trains and this one in particular.
Occasionally leaning forward to turn valves to adjust the steam pressure, Vanderbeck explained why he has volunteered so much of his time since 1985 working on the Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 steam locomotive.
Jim Vanderbeck and his wife, Linda, have served as volunteers for the SP&S 700 since 1985. Vanderbeck is president of the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association, and Linda is also a board member. Both help with the firing of the engine.
Most of the time the locomotive is stored in the roundhouse in Portland, away from public eye and admiration. Occasionally it gets special attention at state fairs or gets an invitation such as this one from the Salem Downtown Association to appear.
"Sometimes I really wonder what I'm doing with my life," said the accountant who spends his days working for the State of Oregon, but most of his spare time working on the train. He is in his fourth year as president of the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association. He admits there area days when volunteers like him get burned out as they spend many hours each week, often weekends and vacation time, maintaining and preserving the 1938 locomotive.
Last weekend, as the steam locomotive slowly chugged its way toward Riverfront Park in Salem for the first time in more than eight years, Vanderbeck got his answer.
"When we came around the corner and there were the people standing there or sitting in lawn chairs waiting for us, like a parade going down the street, it means a lot to us but also to them.
"There were little kids and people who were grandparents or former railroad workers. A day like yesterday makes all the rest of the days seem worthwhile," he said of the day before, when more than 3,000 people showed up.
Vanderbeck shared another lasting memory of when the locomotive visited Billings, Mont., two years ago. There were excited kids seeing a steam locomotives for the first time but also a man in his 80s with tears in his eyes who approached him and the other volunteers there. "These are people you've never seen before, they walk by and say thank you."
This means a lot to the non-profit organization "that doesn't have a lot of money," Vanderbeck said. With a core volunteer group of perhaps 20 people, and modest membership dollars, the organization has helped raise over $1 million to restore and keep the locomotive operational. Companies have donated steel, ball bearings and other materials to help restore the train over the last 15 years.
Jim Vanderbeck's wife Linda wears an orange safety vest and gloves as she helps in the cab. She has also worked on this train since 1985. When they first met, Linda realized that she would need to be involved with trains because of Jim's love for trains. They both help with the firing of the locomotive.
Dale Birkholz, vice-president of PRPA, works for a Portland television station as a cameraman in his regular job but volunteers every weekend including his last two years' vacation time to work as a mechanic and machinist on the locomotive.
"I'm not a train freak. I love how this machine works," he explained, as he stood by the large train, steam swirling around him.
Matt Baccitich is a fireman and helps with the start-up crew on the SP&S 700 and has worked for nine years with this locomotive. He helps light the fire and ensures the right steam pressure. The controls he monitors with constant attention include the water level and fuel level. In 2002, diesel power was also added to the locomotive as an option over steam to help it travel over larger mountains such as the Rockies to get to Montana.
Birkholz stressed how everyone working on the train is a volunteer. "None of us get paid for anything we do." He expressed his gratefulness for the skills the volunteers provide, such as Tom Weisner who has contributed such specialized skills on parts of the train, such as the wheels, that Birkholz believes "If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be here today."
Fireman and start-up crew member Matt Baccitich has worked on the locomotive for nine years. Wearing safety goggles as he keeps a constant eye on the various gauges in the cab, he said he loves his job because it's unique. "I love trains, I love steam. Trains are fascinating, dirty and loud ... I love them."
He still recalls the first time he saw this engine in Portland.
"I was overwhelmed by the size of it, the scale of it."
While it's the third largest operating steam locomotive in North America, it is the second most powerful one still operating. Weighing 879,700 pounds, more than 110 feet long, the locomotive could haul 2,000 tons or 1,000 passengers; it could reach speeds of up to 100 mph. The train was built in Philadelphia but spent its working life in the west mainly to carry passengers between Spokane and Vancouver through the Columbia Gorge. It was also used to carry freight including agricultural goods, until it was retired in the 1950s.
One of the items carried in the cab of the locomotive is a lemon.
Baccitich explained that Ken Praeger, a former railroad worker wrote in his book "That Reminds Me of Another Story" that anyone who wanted to be a hoghead (an engineer) needed to suck on a lemon first before a shift. That was because so many engineers were known as sourpusses to everyone else. In his honor, a tradition began to bring a lemon along in the cab when the SP&S 700 was making a run.
Jim Abney is someone who has even a deeper tradition.
Serving as the engineer of the steam locomotive last weekend, he said he was the third generation of a family involved in trains. "Being an engineer today is a real treat," Abney said. "My father ran this same locomotive in the 1950s." He said when he grew up beside the railroad tracks in Wishram, Wash., the trains were like part of the family. "Everyone worked for the railroad."
Working for the railroad "was just what I wanted, and that's just what I did, and I've never regretted it," he said, now in his 39th year of being involved.
For most of the week Abney runs trains for Amtrak, but his fondness for this locomotive is evident. He loves running the train, and swears he's "never had a smoother ride than on this one." The roller bearings on the wheels make the difference.
Jim Abney, who works during the week for Amtrak, was an engineer for the SP&S 700 when it visited Salem recently. Abney is following his father's footsteps: his father operated the same locomotive in the 1950s.
Valerie Sovern, marketing director for the Salem Downtown Association hopes to encourage the train to visit Salem more often in the future, perhaps as much as once a year. She said the best part about the locomotive is it appeals to "entire families: grandparents, parents, that was what was really cool ... it was wonderful to see so many people out."
As families admired the glistening black locomotive hissing steam, Vanderbeck and the other volunteers continued to carry oilcans, rags and gloves and they lovingly prepared the locomotive for its return voyage to Portland.
For more information or to contribute to the non-profit organization see www.sps700.org or contact the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association at PO Box 2851, Portland OR 97208.
Elaine Shein can be reached at email@example.com.