Restoration on track

By Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat April 05, 2013 12:39 pm

District 3 Parks and Rec Commissioner Sid Marsh talks about the Shay Locomotive at the Sierra Nevada Logging Museum. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
It’s been about 70 years since the old No. 4 Shay locomotive, now housed at the Sierra Nevada Logging Museum in White Pines, steamed along the Merced River hauling timber.

It’s been about 40 years since the rare Shay, once owned by the Yosemite Lumber Company, was uncovered from beneath a mountain of tires at Davidson’s Scrap Yard in Stockton.

It’s been almost nine years since work began at the museum to restore the old engine and get her running again.

Less than six weeks ago, the mission was accomplished.

Running on compressed air rather than steam to comply with the museum’s lease, the locomotive went back and forth down about 60 feet of track laid by volunteers in June 2004 to accommodate the engine. Project manager Ron Glass stood at the helm as years worth of toil reached fruition. A video of the run along the tracks appears at the museum’s website, sierraloggingmuseum.org.

The train’s successful run completed a $116,000 transportation enhancement historical interpretive grant given via Caltrans. It happened just in time for the museum to reopen its doors Thursday after its regular seasonal closure.

The major portion of the locomotive’s refurbishment occurred when its massive boiler left two summers ago for repairs by a Los Angeles-area boiler works. The work proved trickier than initially thought and took a while longer, too, said Sid Marsh, of Arnold, the museum bookkeeper and county parks and recreation commissioner for the Ebbetts Pass district.

The locomotive still needs a fresh coat of paint but it seems almost a miracle to have it running again after all it’s been through, Marsh said.

“It’s not in great shape to look at, but it works,” he said.

For about 30 years, the venerable steam engine virtually disappeared.

The 82-ton iron workhorse, built by Lima Locomotive Works in Ohio, hauled logs for the Yosemite Lumber Company from 1920 until 1943 in the Merced River canyon just south of Yosemite National Park. When the timber operator ceased to do business, it sold its five Shays to Levin Scrap in Stockton.

Four of the engines were melted down to support the war effort but, as luck had it,  the No. 4 locomotive found itself as a convenient place to stack tires at the yard. Years of piling up the old black rubber rings left the last Shay quietly camouflaged until the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency ordered the removal of the mountain of tires in the 1970s.

The rediscovered No. 4 went on to haul tourists for several years on a dinner train through Heber City, Utah. It changed hands again when the Nevada State Railroad Museum bought up a collection of historic trains for its Boulder City display.

Nevada officials sold it to the museum for $22,000 in 2004.

The Shay is a rare “sidewinder” train, as loggers called it, due to the off-center boiler that counterbalances three massive cylinders on the locomotive’s right hand side. Ephraim Shay, a Civil War veteran who served under Gen. William T. Sherman, designed the patented engines to handle sharp mountain curves and climb up to 14 percent grades.

A model railroad inside the museum and a 1936 film from the railroad illustrates the No. 4’s work in the steep river canyon, traversing about 8,600 feet of track stretched along a 3,000-foot incline.

“It’s incredible,” Museum President Ginny Kafka said. “The trains turn on a much smaller circle than a regular train can.”

Kafka said the museum has lined up a car filled with logs to add behind the engine to better illustrate its role in the Sierra industry. The track will be extended about 20 feet more to fit the car, she said.

The remaining sprucing to be done on the train will hopefully be completed this summer, in time for the museum’s Logging Jamboree on Labor Day weekend, a special occasion when it will run again to entertain visitors.

“We’re going to have a Shay-lebration,” Marsh said.