By Evelyn Cronce
El Defensor Chieftain
Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad
Historical Society is working to
restore an old oil-fired steam
engine with help from the members of
the Socorro Train Gang.
The society was formed specifically to restore the 1944 Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad engine. The AT&SF is now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
Socorro resident Jon Spargo, chief safety officer of the society and vice president of the Socorro Train Gang said the engine was sitting in Coronado Park, in Albuquerque, in non-working condition when a group of train enthusiasts noticed it.
"We knew it was in good shape and eminently restorable," Spargo said, "but the Department of Transportation, the Recreation Department and historical landmarks people all thought it was theirs."
The society approached then Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca with their proposal to restore the engine and change it from a static display to a moving history exhibit. They pointed out to the mayor the potential liabilities to the city involved with keeping the engine where it was and in the condition it was in. They commented on the fence surrounding the engine that was in need of repair and the potential hazard of children climbing it to try to get to the engine. They pointed out the rusted-through areas on the engine were exposing a white substance that was flaking off as it became exposed to the air. That material was asbestos. Finally, they pointed out the paint on the old engine that was flaking off was an old lead-based paint.
The mayor agreed to sell the engine to the society for $1.
About 10:30 a.m. on June 23, 2000, the giant drive wheels rolled for the first time in 40 years, as No. 2926 was towed out of the park, according to society records.
It took some time to work out the logistics of moving the engine and finding a suitable site to put it during restoration. Eventually, the society moved the engine about 12 blocks to their newly established "World Headquarters," as the restoration site is called, at Eighth and Haines streets. This is where a group of volunteers performs the challenging tasks associated with putting No. 2926 back in full running order. Work on the tender is complete. Attention has been turned to the locomotive itself.
The engine is an oil-fired steam engine, instead of wood or coal, which heats the water to produce the steam.
Spargo explained it is a 4-8-4 class engine using the Whyte system of engine classification. That means it has four wheels on the pilot section, eight wheels on the drive section, and four wheels on the cab and firebox section. It was built for strength and pulling power.
The 2-ton tender was built to hold 7,000 gallons of fuel oil. The engine holds 24,500 gallons of water, or enough to last for about 150 miles, and then the engine has to stop for more water.
Spargo said the engine was designed to cruise at 80 mph pulling 20 Pullman cars on a trip from Kansas City, Kan.,to Los Angeles. The engine was also pressed into service to carry troops and pull freight cars during World War II.
The society is fortunate that some of the old engineers and repair crewmen are still living in the area.
Spargo said one engineer remembered getting a call when the train was in Clovis to head back to Belen and pick up a load of troops "as fast as possible."
The engineer said he got the engine up to 108 mph. Another engineer claimed he had gotten No. 2926 up to 116 mph on the flats near Grants, N.M.
Spargo said the society also is fortunate in having the engineering drawings for the locomotive and has been successful in obtaining the complete maintenance record of the engine on the Internet through eBay.
Spargo also said one of the crewmen who worked on No. 2926 stopped by the site to talk to the volunteers. He started telling them minute details like which bolts to not tighten too much because they would be inclined to sheer off, and other things.
"We got a tape recorder, and a pad and pencil, and followed the guy around the rest of the afternoon," Spargo said.
Once the engine is restored it will be parked in the Wheels Museum, an old train repair facility that is being refurbished, about one-quarter mile south of the Amtrak building in Albuquerque. That is, it will be there when it is not out on the rails.
The society is working with the Legislature's Centennial Commission to create a proposed centennial train.
New Mexico will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of statehood in 2012.
Spargo said 90 percent of New Mexico residents live within a few miles of railroad tracks.
The proposed centennial train would be No. 2926 pulling a string of cars.
Each car would be a separate exhibit depicting some part of New Mexico's history. Spargo said the society envisions the train stopping at museums, parks, monuments and schools as it makes it's way around the state.
The society is also considering providing historical passenger train rides through Raton Pass, but it's just a dream, so far.
"We've got four years to get it together," Spargo said.
The society looks forward to the day when the powerful chugging of steam-driven wheels and the lonesome wail of a steam whistle will once again haunt the rails of central New Mexico.