AKRR engine No. 557 comes home

Photo/Michael Dinneen/For the Journal

A blast from the past hit the Alaska Railroad Corp. this month with the return of one of its original steam locomotives. There will be no museum or warehouse destination for it either. Engine No. 557 is ready to be renovated and put into service as a tourism vehicle.

This was Alaska’s last operating steam engine. The locomotive was constructed in the mid-1940s for the U.S. Army, and last operated as part of the railroad in 1957. It was destined for the scrap heap in the early 1960s, but wound up as part of a museum in Moses Lake, Wash., instead. The Jansen family, owners of the Lynden company among other Alaska-based transportation businesses, later purchased the engine from the estate of the museum’s owner.

Alaska Railroad President and CEO Christopher Aadnesen said that both the Jansens and former Sen. Ted Stevens had been trying to bring the engine back for years. The Jansens wanted to donate it and get the engine back home. After he assumed the chief position in late 2010, Aadnesen helped push the deal forward.

Engine No. 557 was transported into Anchorage this month, making a pit stop at the Railroad Depot before being carried into storage to await restoration.

The railroad has eight years to put it in service but Aadnesen is aiming for as early as 2013.

“We have a business case to put it back in a restricted kind of passenger service as a tourist attraction during the summers,” he said.

The project will depend on volunteer and foundation donations — money from the railroad can’t pay for it. It will cost more than $500,000 to refurbish the locomotive and get it back into service, then it will need to pay for itself. All that remains is to finish the regulations of establishing a foundation to receive such funds.

“We have no doubt that it can be done,” Aadnesen said.

Engine No. 557’s needs concern cosmetic issues like cleaning and painting. It will be completely disassembled and put back together to satisfy survey and inspection requirements for federal agencies.

After that, 557 will require annual maintenance plus periodic Federal Railroad Administration recertification, which will also have to be covered in the business case.

The tender, which holds the oil for the fire, currently rests at the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry in Wasilla, and will join the engine for the restoration.

Aadnesen said the engine is actually in good working order and even operated a few years ago. Reports indicate the running gear is still in good shape.

“We have all sorts of know-how with railroad steam aficionados who live and work in Alaska and around the rest of the country who can make sure that we do it right,” he said.

Original trainmen

The railroad didn’t have to look far to find train enthusiasts excited to see Alaska’s only living steam engine brought back to life. Several even showed up to see it pull into the station.

Jeff Debroeck was among them. His lifelong passion for trains led to his rail career, where he’s now a heavy equipment mechanic for the Alaska Railroad. He’s spent 15 years working with steam locomotives for two Washington railroads and now has the chance to bring that expertise here.

“I’ve worked for the railroad for 13 years and that entire 13 years I’ve been waiting for this day,” he said. “We’re going to make this puppy operational.”

Also in attendance was Weaver Franklin, one of the two last living engineers who operated 557.

Franklin, 89, started out on the railroad in 1946 as a first class mechanic then worked as both a fireman and engineer for locomotives.

“They was fun to operate. They had almost a personality all their own,” he said.

Franklin talked about the evolution of the railroad and how these machines were a different breed than the diesel engines of today. Back when these machines were the primary trains, the fireman would spend his time shoveling coal or other fuels into the fire, and whistles from the engineers blasted to alert of any movements.

Franklin remembered the 1940s, when these steam locomotives were used to rehabilitate the railroad, which was one of the Alaska’s biggest employers then with more than 2,000 employees.

These steam engines were vital for freight and passengers, serving as an integral transportation source between Fairbanks and Seward since there was no road system between the towns yet.

“We played a major part in keeping these municipalities running,” he said.

Franklin and Patrick Durand, a railroad and Alaska historian, said the move toward diesel in the mid-1950s made the engineer’s job easier. Those engines were more efficient but didn’t require as many people to run them.

“It was a different world when they went to diesel,” Franklin said.

Durand said the fact that steam engines requires water and coaling stations along the tracks, as well as the summer track maintenance crews, contributed to the large employee base that was no loner needed after the transition to diesel.

Franklin is sure the railroad will get No. 557 back to operating condition and looks forward to riding it again. He joked that he and Stuart White, 557’s other living engineer, may be the only ones in the state who could still run it.

“I’m sure the Alaska Railroad is gonna put it back into operating condition. It will work. It’ll take time and effort and some money,” he said. “It will be quite a sight, I tell you. It’ll go down in history.”

Updated: 
11/07/2016 - 1:27pm