Northwest Railway Museum bringing locomotives back to life with steam program

Stathi Pappas, the new curator of collections at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, hikes up the tracks to see Locomotive 924. This 1899 engine, about to be pulled out of the immobile lineup along Railroad Avenue, once pulled trains around yards in Seattle and Tacoma, then hauled freight for a paper company.

Restoring the 115-year-old Northern Pacific Railway locomotive 924 will be an exciting challenge for Stathi Pappas

Restoring the 115-year-old Northern Pacific Railway locomotive 924 will be an exciting challenge for Stathi Pappas

Stathi Pappas, the new curator of collections at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, hikes up the tracks to see Locomotive 924.

This 1899 engine, about to be pulled out of the immobile lineup along Railroad Avenue, once pulled trains around yards in Seattle and Tacoma, then hauled freight for a paper company.

The 924 is one of the last surviving steam locomotives of its kind. Its age shows in the well-weathered metal of its machinery, all open to the air. Nothing is hidden, and that’s part of the reason Pappas likes the 924.

“You can see exactly what’s going on,” Pappas said. “‘This is who I am, this is what I do and this is how I do it.’ That’s a steam locomotive in a nutshell. They’re elegant in their simplicity.”

Pappas and the crew at the Northwest Railway Museum are about to get to know the 924 a lot better. She’s the first locomotive to roll into the Snoqualmie organization’s Conservation and Restoration Center this fall as part of the museum’s brand-new steam program.

Two steam locomotives have been chosen for restoration. Next year, summer steam train rides will formally launch, pulled by the Santa Cruz Portland Cement 2, the 0-4-0 steam locomotive on loan from Pappas.

Once the first engine is restored, the program will expand in late 2016.

To Richard Anderson, the museum’s executive director, steam trains add authenticity.

“The significance of the railroad in this region is a pre-World-War-II experience,” he said. Now, visitors to the museum who board a 1912 coach from the 1890s depot will be pulled by a period-appropriate engine.

Steam locomotives were a driving force throughout much of Washington history. They pulled trains throughout the Northwest, beginning with the arrival of the first railroads in the 1870s, and dominated transportation until diesel electric locomotives replaced them in the late 1950s, at the dawn of the interstate highway era.

Reviving steam has been part of the museum’s long-term plan for more than 20 years. The locomotives are a little more costly to operate, compared with the museum’s two small Army diesel engines. Steam engines require specialized facilities and expert knowledge.

“Until we developed our campus, we couldn’t sustainably operate steam,” said Anderson. “We didn’t have any indoor facilities—we were working outside for many years.” Contracting out the maintenance would have been too expensive.

“It’s specialized machinery, a place to do the work, and it’s skills—it’s about the people,” Anderson said.

Wheels from the past

Pappas joined the museum in July to kick off the steam program. His engine, Santa Cruz Portland Cement 2, provides the means to train volunteers in actually running a steam locomotive.

Pappas has a graduate degree in industrial archaeology. Like the rest of the Railway Museum team, he works at historic preservation. Except, the artifacts he preserves have wheels.

“I always considered that my engine could be something that could launch a steam program somewhere,” Pappas said. “I feel fortunate to be able to do that.”

Pappas bought the Portland Cement engine five years ago for an undisclosed sum. At the time, it was the mascot for a fried chicken restaurant in Stockton, Calif. He and friends worked on it one day a week for four years, getting it chugging again a year ago this month.

Pappas’ hands are stained black from his engine work. He’s got a few scars and a finger that doesn’t bend too well from past mishaps. These are minor inconveniences, paid for with passion. Pappas says he could be digging up fossils somewhere, but instead, he thrives on reviving a clunky technology that fascinates him: “I get to live in the past.”

A steam locomotive can be fairly easily cobbled together, Pappas said. “But if you want it to actually last, and keep it in operating condition, and show the world what it was to run steam,” you have to do it right.

When steam locomotives moved the world, they were state of the art, and maintained as such.

“To really accurately portray living history, you have to have all the aspects in place,” Pappas said. To show people what it was, you have to have the backstory to go with it. That’s what I find fascinating.”

Valley residents got a taste of steam this summer. During Railroad Days, the Santa Cruz Portland Cement 2 locomotive, also known as the Chiggen, premiered, inaugurating steam runs on special weekends.

When the Chiggen’s whistle blew, that sound had not been heard in the Valley for decades.

“We had people running up to the depot from blocks around when we pulled it,” said Peggy Barchi, marketing and events manager for the museum.

“It was spectacular,” Anderson said. “But to make no misrepresentation, it’s tremendously expensive.”

It cost $10,000 to ship the locomotive to Snoqualmie from California. It burns 300 gallons of fuel and 2,400 gallons of water a day during a train-ride weekend.

The museum’s steam locomotives are different from diesels in several details. At 45 tons, Pappas’ engine, the cement hauler, weighs less than the 65-ton diesels that the museum now uses to pull its train. It’s a piston engine—fuel oil burns, heats water to steam, which is tapped to drive two 15-inch pistons with a 24-inch stroke with 33,000 pounds of force.

“It’s a smaller locomotive, but once it’s got that train moving, will accelerate it better than those diesels,” said Pappas.

Steam engines behave in a different way from diesels.

“Every machine has its personality,” Anderson said. The two diesel locomotives “are like quarreling children. They behave differently, and when you couple them together, they’ll even fight with one another. They’re supposed to be the same in every way, and they’re not.”

With steam, “It’s not continuous power, like an electric motor. It’s like a sine wave,” said Pappas. “You have this incredibly coarse technology, yet it works incredible well. You have the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, and you create motion with it.”


The Santa Cruz Portland Cement 2 locomotive, running above for Halloween Train rides, gives the museum a working model to train volunteers. Photo by Tami Barber.

Making it happen

For now, the goal is to rebuilt two steam engines that the museum owns, and to fundraise.

“This is the next stage in our evolution,” Anderson said. “We’ll increasingly use this as the experience that people get when they’re here.”

Pappas is leading a team of paid and volunteer staff with prior experience in steam locomotive rehabilitation and restoration. He himself has participated or led more than a dozen similar projects.

The necessary machinery is in place at the museum’s CRC. Grants and donations have already been pledged. The museum will be fundraising over the next two years to pay for the expected $1 million in costs for the new program. Contributions can be made on the museum’s web site,

“It’s going to be a lot of work,” Anderson said. He expects about 20,000 hours of labor for the steam engine, more than the 15,000 hours to restore the Messenger of Peace chapel car, or the 16,000 that went into the restoration of Coach 218.

Volunteers are also sought.

“We always have opportunities for more people,” Anderson said. And you don’t have to be an expert mechanic. “We have a lot of low-skill work that goes into this.”

Skilled positions are there, too, and the museum can provide the training for that.

“There is a commitment that’s required,” Anderson said. “If you want to become a locomotive engineer, and you have no prior volunteer experience with heavy equipment, it’ll take two years to go through that process. You have to write a test, study and prove you can operate under the rules. It’s regulatory law, but also common sense.”

“You cannot buy the experience of learning the skills that it takes to rebuild a locomotive,” Pappas said. “There’s no school to go to. You just have to be part of it at one of the few places that actually do it. And this is one now. If there is anybody who’s ever had this burning desire, we will be doing that all here, not just once but twice.”

New life for old engines

Having two working locomotives will allow the program to expand and run more often. So, the museum plans to restore a second engine, Canadian Collieries locomotive 14 (pictured above), when the 924 is finished.

The ten-wheeled 14 was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1898 for the Union Colliery Company as their number 4. When that Vancouver Island mine was absorbed into Canadian Collieries, it was renumbered 14 and continued in service until 1960, when it was purchased by the museum.

Ten-wheelers were the most popular and greatest-produced locomotive of all time and examples were found on nearly every major railroad in the Northwest, including the lines of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway that ran through Snoqualmie.

“This one is a greyhound,” curator Stathi Pappas said. “She was built to roll.”

“I love the 19th century locomotives,” he adds. “There’s a styling, an attention to aesthetics, that you see go away.”

Learn more about the museum’s steam program at


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