The little engine that could, finally did.
During the evening of Saturday, March 2, members of the steam rail community, from near and far, came together to celebrate the finalization of the Skookum engine restoration.
By Brian Cameron
The event was held at Garibaldi’s Old Mill and featured an historical presentation where original stories and photographs were shown, as well as an emotional speech by Chris Baldo and Scott Wickert themselves.
A Living Legacy
During a cold February day in 1955 the crews of the Deep River Logging Company, along Washington’s Columbia River rainforest, were finishing up their lunch hour to ready their Number-7 engine, casually referred to as “Skookum,” for more loads of fir, spruce and hemlock to be transported back to camp.
Just after lunch they backed her up, tender first, to head on out to pick up more for the day’s haul. Several miles outside of camp the massive engine crept over a small trestle when a loud noise rang out, the engineer slammed the throttle shut and Deep River Logging #7 abruptly halted her advance. Her tender lay half-cocked, off the rails, over the small creek below.
Skookum herself was still sitting well, with a noticeable list, the crew decided they would be better off getting their other locomotive from camp to tow her back on track the next morning Before doing so the engine’s fireman thought it necessary to re-board and inject more water into her boiler so as to keep her ready for service the following day. It was that fateful decision that sealed Skookum’s fate.
“[It was] as if an elephant had simply rolled over on its side to go to sleep,” recalled one crewman at the time.
The offset of water running into Skookum’s boiler effected her center of gravity and in slow succession the great engine toppled onto her side into the wet soil below.
And there she sat.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1960, and after a change in land ownership, was the wreck revisited with a noble intent. Charlie Morrow, hailing from the Puget Sound Railway Historical Association in Snoqualmie, Washington, bought the Skookum from the insurance company for the low scrap-metal price of $1,200. Shortly after purchasing it he began the monumental task of resurrection, and despite the lack of the rail itself, as it was sold for scrap metal previously, Morrow was able to utilize volunteer efforts to exhume the wreck to be brought to the Niblock Yard at the Puget Sound Railway Heritage Association’s headquarters.
And there the Skookum sat, once again.
In 1978, after the death of Charles Morrow, the Skookum project was reinvigorated after a California lumberman named Rogan Coombs purchased the locomotive with the eventual intent to restore her to her former glory. However after negotiating the physical move of Skookum it wasn’t until 1991 that Coombs was able to facilitate the move to the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad (MRSR). It seemed after 31 years of stagnation that the project would be underway.
However the ides of financial boom for Coombs never came.
And Skookum sat.
In 2004 Coombs’s health began to fail, so after contacting another rail enthusiast, Chris Baldo, out of Willits California, it was decided another change in ownership would commence. Baldo, with the help of a young rail apprentice, Scott Wickert, took it upon themselves to truly restore Skookum to her former glory.
Wickert left the MRSR and moved to the Tillamook area with the intent to create the Tillamook Locomotive Works, as well as a tourism side in the form of the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad. It was there, in Garibaldi, that the intricate process of piecing history back together began.
Over the subsequent years the Skookum’s parts were collected from the MRSR and taken to Garibaldi where they slowly but surely assembled Skookum and began to make her whole once again.
Back on Track
“It’s exciting and very satisfying to see this all happening,” said Scott Wickert of the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad. “To get the steam world together for this restoration, I’m kind of proud.”
The gathering on March 2 in Garibaldi marked the end of an entire generation’s worth of perseverance, hard work and ad-hoc engineering. A project that brought together the who’s-who in the steam-rail industry and restored an icon from days passed.
“It’s a good feeling for everyone on the project,” said Scott Hutton, volunteer engineer. “We get to keep history alive, its a machine from our past and its been a really big project.”
Hutton had joined onto the project approximately a year ago and he was one of many who fed into the overall completion of Skookum. Scott Wickert, however, had been part of Skookum since he was at the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, and after so many years he feels a sense of finality with the undertaking.
“This is been my life since 2004,” said Wickert. “I’m happy to be able to give it a second life, and I know after she’s going into good hands.”
Skookum’s owner, Chris Baldo, after facilitating the undertaking, is looking at this project as a positive sign for the future of historic rail restoration. Though this project has now come to completion, there are a number of future endeavors he wants to tackle.
“Pretty much everyone thought that this project was impossible,” said Baldo. “But its the kind of project that takes the skills of a massive amount of people, and I’m happy to see most of those faces here tonight.”
When asked how he felt when he first heard the original whistle, Baldo replied.
“I like watching the reaction of everyone around me, I’m happy to bring her back to life again.”