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Giving a New life to a Big Steam Engine

By Jim Van Drunen / Wheels Museum on October 27, 2012

In 1943, the Baldwin Locomotive Works near Philadelphia began building a new class of steam locomotives for the Santa Fe Railway. The 30 engines were called the 2900 Class. They had the most modern features of the day, and produced tremendous pulling power and speed. They were the heaviest locomotives of the type, weighing almost one million pounds. The engines boasted a top speed of well over 90 miles per hour, and produced 4,590 horsepower. Engine 2926 entered service in May, 1944.

Santa Fe 2926 pulled fast passenger and heavy freight trains across the American southwest from 1944 to 1956, when diesel locomotives replaced steam engines.

The engine was then donated to the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and placed on display in Coronado Park. Displaying 2926 in Albuquerque was very appropriate, since she had been skillfully maintained by the Master Mechanics of the huge Santa Fe Railway Repair Shops, in the Barelas neighborhood.

The historic Santa Fe Railway Repair Shops are undergoing a major adaptive renewal by the City of Albuquerque, and WHEELS Museum is a part of the redevelopment.

Outside in the park, time and weather were not kind to 2926, and a great deal of deterioration was evident.

In the late 1990s, a group of train enthusiasts formed the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society, for the express purpose of restoring 2926 to full running condition. Temporary tracks were laid, and on June 23, 2000, Mr. Jack Messer of Messer Construction Company gave the signal to his team, and the giant drive wheels rolled for the first time in forty years. 2926 was towed from the park to an active railroad siding.

In 2002, BNSF Railway crews assisted the Society by carefully moving 2926 about twelve blocks to its newly established "World Headquarters", as the restoration site is called. At World Headquarters, a group of dedicated volunteers began performing the challenging tasks necessary to restore 2926 back to full running order.

The eclectic crew represents all walks of life, including doctors, engineers, machinists, welders, pipefitters, mechanics, and many other skills and occupations. When fully restored, the group’s mission is to operate Passenger Excursion Service. It will be both a rolling history class, and an addition to New Mexico’s tourism industry.

To accomplish this, a complete Locomotive Service Facility was created. A crew office was installed, followed by an insulated boxcar or “reefer” in railroad terms, which became an Education Center. Truck trailers and containers were installed as needed to create work areas, such as a machine shop, parts shop, tool and supply shops, and storage space.

A powerful rail car mover, fork lifts, a rolling crane, and other heavy tools and equipment were either acquired or custom built for the project. Next, a locomotive service pit was built, which can support the tremendous weight of the Locomotive.

The group decided to tackle the rebuilding of the Tender first, which was a major project in itself. Three tons of rust, scale and oil-turned-to-tar had to be removed by hand. Their work is often so labor-intensive that members are given “Pig Pen” awards for getting almost as much dirt on them, as they remove.

Next, the plumbing and brake systems were completely rebuilt. Sandblasting and painting were next. The Tender is now completely finished, including new gloss black paint and original Santa Fe lettering. The finished Tender was displayed at the 2012 National Train Day in Albuquerque.

The work is led by a volunteer Chief Mechanical Officer. The Locomotive is not just being repaired as needed; the team is actually rebuilding every component to original builder’s specifications, so that 2926 will again provide decades of reliable transportation.

The group’s attention then turned to restoring the Engine itself. To begin this monumental process, the complex Locomotive’s thousands of parts and appliances were removed for careful inspection and rebuilding.

As each part is disassembled, it is photographed, logged, tagged, and assigned a specific storage space so that it can be found later. Next the sheet metal covering the boiler was removed, exposing the steel.

Layers of asbestos were then safely abated from the boiler and many other parts. As the steel was exposed, every inch was carefully examined, and the exposed steel was mapped. Thousands of ultrasound tests were made, and logged, to determine which areas needed to be replaced, to safely contain the Engine’s tremendous heat and pressure. At the same time, the cab was removed and completely rebuilt.

2926’s World Headquarters works like a railroad, with a wide variety of volunteer skills and trades busily returning 2926 to steam. Thousands of hours have been invested in removing rust and old grease from every inch of the Locomotive. Volunteers at World Headquarters keep power tools like wire brushes, grinders, honing tools and needle scalers busy, both cleaning and rebuilding, every week.

Working on trains involves working high above the ground, moving very heavy parts, using large power tools, and many potential hazards. A volunteer Chief Safety Officer monitors all activity. His work includes frequent safety training classes, to prevent incidents.

2926’s dozens of wheels and connecting rods roll on Timken roller bearings. Each bearing has been removed, returned to Timken Company for rebuilding if necessary, and is being carefully reassembled, for smooth, fast rolling over the thousands of miles that lie ahead.

In the Machine Shop, experienced volunteer machinists mold metal into miracles, restoring worn parts, or creating completely new ones from scratch. Mechanics are disassembling, testing, restoring and reassembling hundreds of parts, for many years of reliable service. New tools are being made as needed, to do specialized work, when the old tools are no longer available.

A steam engine is a huge furnace and boiler. Miles of pipes and hundreds of flues and tubes have been disassembled, removed and repaired or replaced as needed.

The experienced team of welders uses cutting torches and electric welders to disassemble, repair, and reassemble parts large and small.

A staff of volunteers in the office is always busy with vital computer, inventory, scheduling, finance, and public relations activities.

Parts, supplies and some specialized labor must be purchased, and the fund raising team is critical to keeping the project moving forward.

After careful rebuilding, hundreds of parts are now finished, and are waiting their turn in the reassembly process. The project is well past the tear-down and inspection phase. Now that much of the locomotive and its parts are restored, the re-assembly phase is well underway, with each step being carefully planned.

You are invited to tour the facility and see the action on most Wednesdays and Saturdays. It is located at 1833 8th St NW, here in Albuquerque.

Nearly one thousand people enjoy the music, food and fun at the Society’s exciting Annual Open House, held each autumn. The restoration progress is showcased, kids love watching the model trains… and ringing the bell. The gift shop and donation boxes are vital to the important fundraising. All tours are free, and donations are appreciated, and are tax-deductible!

Your help is very important to finish the complete restoration of 2926. There are several ways to donate money, labor, and materials listed on the web site: www.nmslrhs.org

With your help, the 2926 team can finish the restoration soon, so that New Mexico will once again echo with the thunder of 2926’s driving wheels, and the lonesome wail of her steam whistle, as she again speeds passengers from town to town, both teaching history and building tourism.


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last updated November, 2012