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Erie’s Engine No. 9 achieves the unthinkable

A steam locomotive like an Erie-built Heisler was expected to serve about five years, not hang around for nearly 100 and undergo a restoration that will cost hundreds of thousands.

As they pounded, heated, cut and shaped massive beams and sheets of metal, it’s likely that the Erie-area craftsmen employed at Heisler Locomotive Works, once located near West 16th and Hickory streets, had no illusion about the fleeting existence of their 30-ton creations.

The service life of a steam locomotive like those built at the Erie plant was about five years, according to railroad historian and preservationist Fred Runner. Heislers were built to take on the toughest conditions of the day — pushing and pulling heavy loads up and down steep grades in remote locations like mines and lumber camps. You ran them hard until they couldn’t go anymore and then you got a replacement. “In those days they were considered disposable,” Runner said.

So to the Heisler laborers who fulfilled shop order 15106, submitted 98 years ago this month, the idea that their handiwork would still exist today would have been nearly unthinkable. That it would be the object of a preservation effort that will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars would be unimaginable.

Yet here we are.

On Nov. 28, 90-ton and 30-ton cranes pulled up alongside shop order 15106 at its longtime outdoor resting place at the Scotia Museum in Scotia, California. The cranes hoisted the locomotive onto a flatbed trailer attached to a semi. For the first time in more than 50 years, the engine was on the move, going 200 miles south to Sonoma County, where Runner and a dedicated crew of volunteers have begun the process of restoration and fundraising.

Of the 620-some Heislers built, this locomotive’s double lucky. That it survived at all is incredible, but what has it on the brink of immortality is its service as Engine No. 9 on the now-defunct Mount Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway, a tourist attraction once known across the globe as “the crookedest railroad in the world” due to its 280-some curves winding up the mountain.

Decades ago, historians determined No. 9 was the last remaining piece of the railway’s rolling stock.

No. 9 worked Mount Tamalpais from 1921 to 1924, when the railway, struggling due to the rise of the automobile and a road up the mountain, sold it to erase a deficit. A 1929 fire doomed the railroad, and the tracks were pulled up in 1930.

No. 9 went to a lumber company and apparently worked the logging circuit until the early 1950s, when the Pacific Lumber Co. kept the engine from being scrapped by purchasing it and putting it on display at Scotia, a town the company established to support its operations. Pacific Lumber’s 2007 bankruptcy filing started a chain of events that led to No. 9 going up for sale. Friends of No. 9, with Runner as one of its leaders, was the high bidder, paying a little more than $56,000.

Once the cosmetic restoration is done, the group plans to put No. 9 on permanent display under cover to protect it from the weather. The display will include information panels about the engine and the railway. A location is not certain yet, but it could be in Mill Valley, near where trips up the railway began, or on Mount Tamalpais.

In an interview a week after the move, Runner said, “I’m still on Cloud Nine. It is just a miracle to me.” Historians and rail buffs had tried for decades to obtain and restore No. 9, Runner explained, long enough that some initially involved have passed away.

Inspections of No. 9 indicate it is in relatively good shape, Runner said. “We are so tremendously lucky.”

And so is Erie, having a piece of its industrial heritage preserved and appreciated. I keep imagining the Heisler crew who filled order 15106 looking down at us and shaking their heads in disbelief. But they are smiling.

See the full article by Pat Bywater for here


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