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Sometimes Dreams Do Come True - A Ride Behind The Skookum 9/12/2020

by Chris Guenzler

Every once in a while in life, a dream can come true. The Skookum returned from the dead and before Winterail in 2019, there was a charter trip and we just happened to be there along Wheeler Bay when the Skookum came by.

The Skookum at Wheeler Bay. Now the question was would I ever get a chance to ride it? It came down to the Niles Canyon Railway in late 2019 but it did not run. Then COVID-19 happened and this year's trips were cancelled until we found out from Facebook that public excursions were being offered. My new wife Elizabeth had found this and we decided to make a big weekend trip out of it. These rides, including the one we rode, were the first of the season for the Niles Canyon Railway in 2020. We were therefore on the inaugural trip. We had to practice social distancing and wear face coverings per the Alameda County COVID-19 rules.

A Little History on the Skookum

One of the most famous of all logging locomotives is the Skookum. This engine was the very first logging mallet built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1909 and only one of three 2-4-4-2 wheel arrangement engines ever built. This engine was originally built for the Little River RR in Townsend Tennessee as their 126. They wanted to experiment with a small mallet for their light track. Unfortunately the engine proved to be too heavy and many derailments during testing showed that the engine would simply not work for Little River. The buyer rejected the engine and returned her in new condition to Baldwin.

Baldwin quickly found a buyer on the West Coast for the Skookum. The Columbia Belt Line of Blind Slough, Columbia was looking for a powerful rod-engine that would work on their logging railroad. Baldwin repainted the engine and gave her a name rather than a number. She was named "Skookum", a Chinook Indian word meaning strong, good & powerful. This was exactly the image Baldwin wanted to portray for this, the very first logging Mallet locomotive built. The little 2-4-4-2 worked beautifully. She exceeded all expectations and led the way for Baldwin to build nearly 50 more logging Mallets for use on other logging railroads.

The Skookum was typical of many logging locomotives of that era. When one logger would cut-out their timber the engine would be re-sold to another logger for use on their railroad. The Skookum worked for 3 different operators until being sold to a logger in Washington. She ended her career on the Deep River Logging Co. at Deep River, WA. By this time her name "Skookum" had been replaced with 7.

The fact that 7 was saved was a measure of both bad luck and good luck. In February 1955 Deep River was nearing the end of their timber and thus the use of their logging railroad. They planned to scrap the railroad and locomotives by the end of that year. By this time Deep River had only 2 locomotives left, a big ALCO 2-6-2 and the 7. The preferred engine was the 7 because of its greater power and traction. On February 23, 1955 while the 7 was backing her train of cars across a short trestle she hit a piece of broken rail and her tender derailed causing the whole locomotive to lean precariously to one side. The crews got out and assessed the situation. The engine seemed stable enough to the crew and since nighttime was approaching they planned to leave the engine until the next morning when they could return with the 2-6-2 and help re-rail the 7.

With the engine leaning heavily to one side, the fireman decided to add water to the boiler so the crown sheet would stay covered with water overnight. As the water was injected into the boiler the center of gravity for the engine raised. As the crew watched with amazement, the engine breathed a sigh and fell over on her side off the short trestle. Even though the soft ground where the engine fell prevented damage to the engine the crew now had an engine completely off the track laying in a stream bed. Re-railing 7 was now a major job.

Since the railroad had only a few months of work left and since the big 2-6-2 was available for service, Deep River decided to leave 7 in the woods and simply complete the logging with the ALCO. When it came time to scrap the line in late 1955, the 7 was too remote for the scrapper to conveniently scrap the engine and get the pieces out. The rail was pulled up and 7 was simply abandoned laying on her side in the woods.

The rail fan community had long known of this famous first logging mallet built by Baldwin. When rail fan Charlie Morrow learned that 7 was abandoned in the woods he bought her from the scrapper "as-is, where-is". Getting the engine out was no small trick since the railroad had been pulled up and no roads were near-by. Mr. Morrow and his friends had to disassemble the 1909 locomotivein the woods and take her out piece-by-piece. The boiler had been on the frame since 1909 and was difficult to separate. Mr. Morrow had to resort to using dynamite to blast the boiler off the frame.

Morrow was one of the founding members of the Puget Sound RR Historical Society and 7's pieces were moved to the museums facility in Snoqualmie, WA where it sat in pieces until sold to Rogan Coombs in 1996. Mr. Coombs, a California logger moved the Skookum to the Mount Rainer Scenic RR shops in Mineral in 1996 so the engine can be repaired, reassembled and operated for future generations to enjoy.

Information courtesy of Martin Hansen from Sierra Scale Models website

Since the Skookum's restoration, it has operated on just the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad and the Niles Canyon Railway.

Our Trip behind the Skookum

We left the BART station and 39 minutes later, we arrived at Sunol. Elizabeth went and got our tickets while I parked the car which was easier than I thought. We then had a great idea to go down to the crossing and shoot the Skookum as it went by us.

The Skookum backs by our photo location and goes to the other end of the train so it can pull the train backwards down to Niles.

The Sunol Southern Pacific depot. We boarded the open car and took two seats in the back of it.

The train left on time at 4:00 PM and we were now enjoying our ride behind the Skookum. Sit back and enjoy the trip to Niles aboard the Niles Canyon Railway.

Our trip from Sunol to Niles behind the Skookum.

The Southern Pacific Niles station. We had about a twenty-minute layover while the steam engine switched ends for the return trip.

The Skookum switching to the other end of the train.

Amtrak Capitol Corridor Train 538 passes Niles and our steam train.

The train leaves the yard at Niles.

The fire speeder followed us in case it was needed.

Views from the trip from Niles to Brightside Yard.

One of the two wig-wag signals on this railroad.

View of the Pacific Locomotive Society's equipment at Brightside Yard. I relaxed for the rest of the trip back to Sunol.

The train back in Sunol after we detrained.

The Skookum, a 2-4-4-2, at rest at Sunol.

The last picture of the Skookum for this trip. Thank you to the Pacific Locomotive Society and the Niles Canyon Railway, for our opportunity to ride behind the Skookum. Everyone involved did a wonderful job.

We left Niles Canyon and took CA Highway 84 to 580 to Altamont Pass Road for Elizabeth's first visit over Altamont Pass. No trains were sighted but she was able to see many of the historic sites. We then drove to Tracy where we went to KFC who told us there was no chicken available for over twenty minutes. With that news, we left and drove to Modesto and visited the KFC there and were satisifed with their service and we had our dinner in the parking lot. From here, Elizabeth drove to Merced and we checked into the Days Inn for a very restful night.