Finishing Skookum: The saga continues

By November 16, 2019Features

By Chris Baldo

Reproduced with permission from the West Coast Railway Association News

I am often surprised with the breadth of the international following that Skookum attracts, a tribute not just to the locomotive’s attractive lines, but an appreciation for her remarkable life story of rejection and redemption, multiple near-death experiences, a restoration that defies reason and her status as an important period piece of locomotive technology. As far back as 1960 when Charlie Morrow labored on the bank of the Naselle River to rescue Skookum, newspaper accounts of the project talked about railfans from British Columbia coming to Morrow’s “Skookum Camp” to assist in the project.

The lasting image everyone has of Skookum is the locomotive laying on its side in 1955 along the Naselle River. The locomotive derailed while returning to camp working for the Deep River Logging Company.

Driving all night Friday evening after work to spend two dirty and painful days dismantling the locomotive, before driving Sunday night to get back to work on Monday.  I wish I knew who those dedicated Canadians were. That was close to the date of the founding of the West Coast Railway Association in 1961, so some of those founders might have been on the first Skookum crew. Part of the lost lore that makes Skookum so magical.

In bringing people up to date on the Skookum restoration, I will not try to chronicle here the events of the past 14 years since the restoration began in 2005. We have tried in document that process with several publications from our logging history group in Willits, California called Roots of Motive Power. All of those publications were re-printed in early 2019 as one volume, entitled The Resurrection of a Locomotive – The Skookum Project, A Compendium of Five Issues of the Roots of Motive Power Highline. I am not pushing that publication here, but wanted to let interested railfans know that it is available for sale in Willits at The Bookjuggler, 182 South Main Street, Willits, CA 95490 (707) 459-4075.  Those five issues of the Highline take us from the delivery of the locomotive to the Little River Lumber Company in Townsend, Tennessee in 1909, through its working life in the Pacific Northwest, its fall from grace on the bank of the Naselle River, the heroic effort by Charlie Morrow and friends in 1960 to save her, the intervening 45 years of storage and neglect, and finally the restoration project that began in 2005 and continued until the locomotive’s operation in Oregon in the spring of 2019.

Skookum was in the news in March, 2019 when it participated in the TRAINS magazine photo charter on the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad.  The image of Skookum largely together and operating under its own power was truly a miracle for anyone that followed the locomotive’s various states since 1955. It is a testament to the persistence and skills of Scott Wickert and his Tillamook Locomotive Works that the restoration project proceeded at a consistently high standard through some very uncharted waters.

I decided several years ago that I wanted to move Skookum closer to home to complete the restoration and enjoy some of the fruits of a very expensive undertaking.  April 15, 2019 was moving day, and after a series of battles to secure the necessary permits, Renn Transportation of Gilroy, California was heading down Interstate 5 with Skookum aboard.

On the road to Niles Canyon.

The destination was the Niles Canyon Railway at Sunol, California where Skookum would operate for a year. I had become good friends with the Niles Canyon steam crew and their CMO Alan Siegwarth after two guest visits to Niles Canyon with my Baldwin 2-6-2 side-tank Mason County Logging #7 and trusted their skill and judgement.

A good friend and fellow railroad afficianado, George Lavacot, has counciled me in his fatherly manner by saying the worst think you can do to a steam locomotive is to operate it; and the second worst thing you can do is not to operate it. Our initial efforts operating Skookum at Niles Canyon made two things very clear; Skookum was far from a completely restored locomotive, and George was right on the first account. We found ourselves doing a whole series of repairs to various components, major and minor, as the miles began to add up, and we tried to scratch never-completed items off of Alan Siegworth’s list faster than he added items.  I will try in this article to review here what I call the Niles Canyon phase of the Skookum restoration.

While at the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, Skookum had suffered four catastrophic breakdowns involving valve gear that were attributed to a variety of issues, incorrect valve timing, lack of lubrication, issues with the power reverse. All of these issues were corrected to some degree, but the failures were forefront in everyone’s thoughts at Niles Canyon as they were so immediate and destructive, with little advance warning of a problem.  Valve gear components of later Baldwin locomotives were all constructed with much more substantial structure and parts, which was cause for concern. But, 45 years of successful operation in the Pacific Northwest logging woods indicated the 1909 design was more than adequate. Running the engine light, we became a more comfortable with the repairs made and the reduced potential catastrophic failure, but valve timing issues still seemed apparent. One of the attributes of the Niles Canyon Railway for rail fans is the sustained 1.5% grade on the west end from Niles to the yard limits at Brightside. Those grades with a string of cars were made for Skookum, but no amount of cajoling could get Skookum to start toward Brightside while attached to a consist. We needed to address valve timing again.

Timing valve gear on a saturated steam slide valve engine equipped with Walshaertz valve motion and a steam-operated power reverse is like trying to land on Mars; lots of calculating and head scratching going on, followed by some very old-school work in the mechanical department. To assist us in this endeavor, we enlisted the services of Steven Butler of Morton Locomotive and Machine in Morton, WA.

One of the low-pressure radius rods on Skookum is heated in preparation for some hammer work to slightly lengthen the rod. This is part of the tedious valve timing procedure undertaken at the Niles Canyon Railway.

This high pressure radius rod from Skookum needs to be shortened. A jig is built to hold the rod stable. Steven Butler is shown heating the rod prior to the compression force applied by the hydraulic porta-power.

Not wanting to make the mistake of assuming any part of the previous work was correct, we started with the very basics of finding correct front and rear dead centers on the driving wheels, and removing all the valve covers so we could determine the limits of valve travel and transfer this information to an external point. By moving the locomotive forward and back, we could now determine the accuracy of the valve setting.  Unfortunately, we determined that the valve timing was off on all four corners (both low pressure engines and both high pressure engines).  There are no simple adjustments on slide valve equipped locomotives; changes are made by lengthening or shortening either the eccentric rod or the radius rod, or both, dependent on what the measurements and calculations indicate. This procedure is much the same as the blacksmith at the Baldwin factory would use in 1909, heating steel and hammering to lengthen the part, or heating steel and using some form of compression to shorten the part. The Baldwin smith had the luxury of the correct tooling, and the fact that the process, the calculations and the adjustments, was an every-day event in the manufacture of steam locomotives. It took two days to work our way around the locomotive, removing parts, lengthening or shortening under Steven’s watchful eye. Just about the time I thought we were getting good at it, we were finished.

It was not until the following week that Skookum backed up to a line of seven cars and one diesel locomotive, and headed east on the gentle grade to Sunol. With all systems working well, we headed west down the hill to Niles.  This would be the test of our valve timing skills as well as seeing how Skookum would fire under load as we thundered up the hill. Alan Siegwarth does not smile very often, but we did get a glimpse of a smile when we pulled into Brightside. Some more things were added to Alan’s list, like the petticoat pipe and nozzle in the smokebox, but it was a huge relief when we knew that Skookum could now do the work she was designed to do.

One of the partially completed projects on Skookum was the firebox door shroud, an assembly that allows air for the firebox door damper to be pulled from under the floor of the cab. The lower portion of this assembly was completed by Scott Wickert in Garibaldi, but it needed to be installed and a transition piece fabricated between the door and the shroud. Because the door still needed to be opened, the fit between the two had to be close, but flexible enough to permit movement. The installation of the shroud and the fabrication of the transition was completed by Eli Mosher of Baldo Locomotive Works.

The new firebox door shroud and transition.

Another of the partially completed Skookum projects was the shimmering green sheet metal jacket. The jacket looked good from afar, but some areas, notably behind the cross-compound air pump, were never properly completed. The jacket was held into place underneath with a combination of baling wire and wooden wedges, all of which needed to be remedied. Troy James and Eli Mosher of Baldo Locomotive Works removed the air pump to address the boiler jacket issues behind and also install some missing mounting studs for the air pump.  With the walkway and considerable plumbing to be removed, this was not a simple project. More work remains for the boiler jacket, most notably on the wrapper sheet in the cab of the locomotive where it was never installed.

The Niles Canyon steam crew has been busy placing insulating pipe wrap on the steam piping in the cab. Burned fore arms from reaching through the web of steam plumbing in the cab of a locomotive to open or close a valve are part of the mystique of steam engineers and firemen, and most have the battle scars to verify their membership in the select club. But, we try to do what we can to minimize the occurrence.

George Lavecot’s advice on the inevitable consequence of operating a steam locomotive was prophetic as we first had to deal with a blown head gasket on the Westinghouse cross compound compressor and then with a bad bearing on the Pyle National dynamo. The air pump had been rebuilt in Oregon, using the new environmentally safe composite gasket material. Luckily Alan dug through his trove of old parts and produced one of the old copper head gaskets, which did the trick.

Steven Butler works at replacing a blown head gasket on the cross-compound air pump with the Skookum under steam.

Rebuilding the Pyle National K-2 dynamo is not as simple a project, and we opted to switch out the K-2 for a Pyle National MO-6 that we had on the shelf at Baldo Locomotive Works.  The K-2 was still making its 32 volts, so hopefully we caught the problem early enough that no damage was done to the turbine wheel or other internal components.

One of the mysteries of the Skookum restoration is what happened to the dozens of pipe brackets from the locomotive and tender between 1960 and 2005. They completely vanished, perhaps still laying in the soft dirt at the Naselle when Skookum was dismantled. Scott Wickert fabricated many in Oregon. We have continued that project down at Niles, with several dozen more pipe brackets still to fabricate. It is a slow process, no two brackets alike, no two fastening points the same, no blueprint, just common sense and good metalworking skills.

The never ending task of fabricating more pipe brackets for Skookum. Here Eli Mosher heats flat bar to form the curved bracket at the Niles Canyon shop.

The list of small projects completed is long and impressive; fabrication and installation of the lower hand brake bracket so the hand brake is fully operational, fabricating new nozzles for the front sander valves to make the sanders operational, repairing one of the Hancock injectors, replacing packing in multiple valves, making repairs to the 5-feed Chicago lubricator, creating more ring gap in the piston rings of the Ragonnet power reverse so it could operate more freely, adding auxiliary oilers to the low-pressure valve chests to insure adequate lubrication.

At the Niles Canyon Brightside yard.

I do not want to depress you with Alan Siegwarth’s continuing list of Skookum repair projects. At this point, none will limit Skookum’s scheduled operation at Niles Canyon, including the reenactment of the pounding of the Golden Spike in September, 2019, 150 years from when the transcontinental railroad finally reached the San Francisco Bay. You can keep in touch with Skookum events and schedule of operation by checking on the Niles Canyon Railway website.