ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For the first time since the 1950s, old Santa Fe 2926 is letting off some steam.
About 100 people gathered in the gray, drizzling early morning on Wednesday to watch as, for the first time in decades, the boilers of the old locomotive were fired up in the Eighth Street work yard of the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society.
Plumes of dark, hazy smoke climbed out of the locomotive’s smokestack at about 6:30 a.m., signaling a landmark moment in a renovation project that’s been underway for more than 15 years.
“We got a little more steam testing to do and then we’ll put the pistons on it,” an elated Michael Hartshorne, society president, said Wednesday morning. He said the organization’s goal continues to be to get 2926 up and running on the rails again, perhaps making excursions to the Grand Canyon or the old New Mexico railroad town of Las Vegas.
Santa Fe 2926, a 1944 Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway steam engine, made its last run on Christmas Eve 1953. It was donated to the city of Albuquerque in 1956 and placed in Coronado Park, on Second Street just south of Interstate 40. It stayed in the park, savaged by the elements and used by the homeless as a shelter and toilet, until 2000 when the Steam Locomotive & Railroad Society, organized specifically to rescue Santa Fe 2926, bought the locomotive for $1 and moved it, first to side tracks at Second and Menaul and then, in 2002, to 1833 Eighth NW.
From 2002 up to this week, society members have put in 178,000 volunteer hours and taken in $3.1 million, almost all of it in donations, to restore the locomotive to the smoking wonder it was in the 1940s and early ’50s. It is an undertaking more immense than the locomotive, which is 18 feet tall and weighs 510,150 pounds.
An average of 25 to 35 society members have turned out for twice-weekly work sessions over the years. Parts had to be tracked down in other countries. Parts that no longer existed had to be made. Sometimes, tools, such as huge wrenches, had to be made. Several sections of the boiler, which had worn thin, had to be replaced.
But now, there’s smoke in the stack, fire in the belly of the beast and light at the end of the tunnel.
“We are a bunch of guys and gals who have dumped a lot of time and effort into this and suffered a lot of frustrations,” Hartshorne said. “It feels great when you see it actually works.”