Locomotive 557 arrives in Alaska

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Locomotive 557 makes its way from Whittier to Anchorage, Alaska past Cook Inlet in December.

MOSES LAKE - A 160,000-pound piece of history made it home after decades in Moses Lake and a three week journey over land and sea.

Locomotive 557 was built in 1944 and ended it's service in 1959 as Alaska's last operating steam engine.

It now sits in temporary storage near Anchorage before being refurbished, after which it begins making regular two-way excursions from Anchorage south to Portage.

The aging engine has come a long way since Moses Lake legend Monte Holm saved it from the scrap yard, picking it up from an Everett steel dealer in the mid 1960s.

Holm, a former hobo and local scrap yard magnate, parked his prized possession on a 210-foot piece of track he dubbed the Mon-Road Railroad, where it continued to sit after Holm died in 2006.

It might still be there if not for the interest of Steve Silverstein, who was the Vice President of the Alaska Railroad Corporation. About 10 years ago he was first made aware of the historical engine's existence via several degrees of friendship.

"I heard about it from a couple guys in Anchorage and then talked with Vic Jansen who - he and his brother and I - we've been friends for a long time," Silverstein said. "They knew Monte Holm and lived not too far from Moses Lake and were aware of the locomotive, so I flew down to Seattle on business and they took me over to visit Monte. Events kind of developed from there."

Jansen, the director of transport company Lynden Incorporated, was a close personal friend of Holm for about 30 years. His family purchased the locomotive from Holm's estate in 2008, leaving it where it was for several years before it was donated to the Alaska Railroad Corporation.

"It took a long time for the deal to develop and to make sure the Alaska Railroad Corporation was willing to accept the locomotive and do something with it, that we had a plan that made some sense," Silverstein said.

Their eventual plan was finally put in motion this December, when the train pulled away from its perch on West Broadway Avenue to travel by rail to Seattle and be loaded on a barge for the six day trip to Whittier, Alaska.

There are no rail lines connecting Alaska's system with the contiguous network in the lower 48 states, explained David Blazejewski, superintendent of transportation for the Alaska Railroad Corporation. This is why every week for the past 12 years Alaska Marine Lines - a subsidiary of Jansen's Lynden Incorporated - has moved as many as 50 rail cars a week up north on 420-foot barges.

The barge transporting 557 arrived in Whittier Dec. 30, off-loading the locomotive onto Alaska soil for the first time in more than 46 years.

The engine sat by the dock until Jan. 3, when it was untarped and loaded onto a single car and connected to two locomotives for the three-hour trip northwest to Anchorage for refurbishment.

The train pulled into the Anchorage Depot at 2 p.m. sharp for a brief welcome home ceremony attended by several guests and honorees, Blazejewski said, including ARRC President and CEO Chris Aadnesen and89-year-old Weaver Franklin, who is one of two known living engineers who operated the 557 during its regular service.

But Silverstein, who recently retired from the Alaska Railroad Corporation, wasn't present, having left for his new home in Portland a day after 557 pulled in to the Anchorage station.

"It was still coming off the barge when I was getting on a plane," he said.

He plans to pay a visit to see the locomotive on his return visit to Anchorage next week, when he'll start a new, part-time gig with the Alaska Railroad Corporation - gathering money and volunteers to form a non-profit organization dedicated to getting 557 back to work.

While the Alaska Railroad Corporation will still own the locomotive, the non-profit will be responsible for maintenance and upkeep of 557 as well as fundraising for the cost of refurbishment, which is estimated to run between $500,000 and $1 million, Silverstein said.

"It's really hard for the railroad to justify putting capital into it because it's not going to be a big profit center," he said. "We expect it to be a really positive and very popular thing for people to ride behind a steam locomotive in Alaska, but we don't expect it to be wildly profitable, so we're trying to put together a volunteer organization to maintain it."

The locomotive could have some company when it gets back on track.

In December, the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry donated an original U.S. Army Transportation Corp. tender to the Alaska Railroad Corporation. The tender will join 557 in a restoration plan and eventually return to excursion service along with the locomotive.

So far, Silverstein said he's had a good response, and hopes to have the rebuild completed in the next year or two.

"The folks in Alaska are very grateful to have that piece of historical iron back in the state where we can operate it and where people can see something of the history of the Alaska Railroad on a daily basis," Silverstein said. "It's a pretty exciting. There aren't too many railroads that actually have their own old steam locomotives in operation."

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