Thursday, June 17, 2010

Heritage: Washington's Oldest Steam Locomotive

The "Blue Mountain" still exists at the Washington State Railroads Historical Society in Pasco, Washington, pictured on 17-June-2010

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - The Washington State Railroads Historical Society Museum in Pasco, Washington is not especially well-known in the world of railroad museums. Yet, the Tri-Cities (if broadly defined to include the Hanford site) attracted as many class I railroad systems that served Washington state as Seattle, lacking only the Great Northern. (Spokane, the capitol of the "Inland Empire," is the only area to be served by all of them--the Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, Great Northern, Spokane, Portland and Seattle, Milwaukee Road, and Spokane International.) As a crossroads of various lines, the area offers a rich history of railroads, so perhaps I should not have been surprised to find that the museum here offered a rich collection of artifacts.

Railroading history in Washington territory--it wasn't a state until 1889--started with the Walla Walla and Columbia River Railroad. When originally constructed in the 1870's, the area was so remote that it couldn't even get rails--one of the metal straps that originally served as temporary rails survived to be displayed in the museum. Amazingly, that line still exists--it was eventually purchased by the Union Pacific, which leased it to the shortline now known as the Palouse River & Coulee City--it is the only remaining rail route to Walla Walla.

One of the locomotives from that line--a 1878 Porter 0-6-0 steam locomotive, delivered via the tip of South America--may be the highlight of the whole museum collection. Gradually being restored to its original configuration, the "Blue Mountain" is believed to have traveled more miles as freight than in revenue service, having gone to Nome, Alaska after brief stints in Washington state before lines were converted from its narrow gauge to standard gauge.

My favorite artifact was a numberboard from Northern Pacific 4-8-4 #2626. Constructed as "the Timken engine" #1111 (the "Four Aces"), the steam locomotive had been constructed as a demonstrator for Timken roller bearings. After its tour of a substantial portion of the country, it was purchased by the same railroad that had popularized the 4-8-4, the Northern Pacific, which renumbered it to 2626. Always a popular engine, it powered a number of excursions at the end of steam and thus it was a minor scandal when the Northern Pacific scrapped the engine instead of donating it to a city or preservation group. The numberboard in Pasco is one of a very few parts from the locomotive that has survived.

The museum has a firm grounding in very local history as well, with an extensive display of photos from around the Tri-Cities. I thought I knew quite a bit about railroad depots in Kennewick, since my granfather worked in one of them for more than thirty years, but I had not been aware that the Spokane, Portland and Seattle had a depot on East 3rd Avenue, in addition to the Northen Pacific and Union Pacific depots downtown.

The Washington State Railroads Historical Society Museum is open Thursday and Friday afternoons and 9-3 on Saturdays from April to December, located right across from the modern-day BNSF rail yards at 122 North Tacoma Avenue in Pasco.

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