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Rescued steam engine marks 75th birthday

Rides on a speeder, a railway motor car, will be available at the 75th birthday party for Santa Fe 2926. (Courtesy of NMSLRHS)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s taken steam locomotive Santa Fe 2926 17 years and a lot of help to get her party face on but she’s ready to celebrate her 75th birthday.

“I hope I look that good when I’m 75,” said Gail Kirby, 66, secretary of the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society. The organization has invested 200,000 volunteer hours and $3.5 million to date in making the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe steam engine look as good as she did when she made her first run in 1944.

For her birthday party on Saturday, May 18, Santa Fe 2926 will likely look different than she ever has before.

Santa Fe locomotive 2926 steams through California during her active years. The New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society, the organization restoring Santa Fe 2926, is celebrating her 75th anniversary with a birthday party on Saturday, May 18. (Courtesy of Western Railway Museum Archives)

“I think we are going to put eyelashes on her,” Kirby said. “We want to make her look really pretty for her birthday.” The steam engine will also sport a festive birthday hat made out of a safety cone and hopefully be bedecked with birthday cards made by kids or anyone else who wants to.

“We want kids to bring birthday cards or make them there at our Birthday Card Station,” Kirby said.

Michael Hartshorne, society president, said the organization will make its speeder, a railway motor car once used by inspectors and maintenance crews to move along the tracks, available for rides by kids and parents.

“A speeder will do 30 to 40 mph, but we’ll just be doing 3 to 4 mph for about 200 feet,” he said. “It has handrails for safety. We don’t need it for anything. But we keep it with the locomotive and bring it out for special events for fun. And it is.”

The public is also invited to wear railroad attire – or whatever they have that’s close – and pose for pictures with Santa Fe 2926.

Hartshorne said the party is an opportunity to show off the gussied-up old lady locomotive.

“The majority of people in this town have not seen her (recently),” said Hartshorne, 70, a physician. “Out of sight and out of mind. This is all about making her visible to the public.”

Almost dead

Even though she stands 18 feet tall and weighs 510,150 pounds, Santa Fe 2926 is not so easy to see these days, tucked away as she is at the society’s work yard, a fenced-off section of sidetrack on Eighth Street a few blocks south of Interstate 40. But once she was very visible to Albuquerque residents and visitors.

Santa Fe 2926 ran the rails from 1944 to 1953 carrying both passengers and freight from Kansas City through Albuquerque to Los Angeles and San Diego. She made her final run on Christmas Eve 1953, ending up in Albuquerque where she was stored away in the AT&SF roundhouse here. In 1956, the railway donated the engine to Albuquerque in celebration of the city’s 250th anniversary.

The city unloaded the locomotive in Coronado Park, on Second Street just south of I-40, and for more than 40 years anyone passing by the park could see it – and watch it waste away. It was roughed up by the elements and used as a shelter and a toilet by the homeless. It was a target for graffiti.

The New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society was formed to rescue Santa Fe 2926. In 1999, the society bought the steam engine from the city for $1. In 2000, it was moved to side tracks at Second and Menaul and then in 2002 to the work site at 1833 Eighth NW. That’s when the makeover started. It turned out to be a much bigger job than anyone expected.

“At first the thinking was that maybe it needed some paint, a couple of gauges, polish some things up and it would be ready to go,” said Hartshorne. “But this machine was almost dead. There was practically nothing on it that did not have to be rebuilt. The only thing that has not been rebuilt is the frame.”

Mud, crud and rust

Frank Gerstle, former society president and former board member, said one of the biggest challenges was repairing sections that had rusted out during the 44 years in Coronado Park.

“There were at least several thousand parts replaced and/or repaired by welding,” said Gerstle, 76, a mechanical and materials science engineer who is retired from Sandia National Laboratories. “The thing that seems to be a major impediment is getting all the items around the boiler to properly function and fit together so we don’t get leaks.”

Gail Kirby works on Santa Fe 2926 with her husband, Rick, 70, a former mechanical contractor who is the chief mechanical officer on the renovation project.

“I have been down under her,” Gail Kirby said of the locomotive. “We used needle scalers to get off all the mud, crud and rust and see what it looked like under there. We did ultrasounding to see how thin and thick the walls of the boiler were. But I think the toughest thing was making sure everybody knew what to do and how to do it. Because no one had ever done anything like this before.”

There are more than 400 members in the society worldwide. All the money that has gone into bringing Santa Fe 2926 back to life has come from membership dues, fundraising and donations. About 65 members are involved in the actual restoration, meeting on Wednesdays and Saturdays to work on the locomotive.

The society’s goal is to get the steam engine track worthy so it can be used on excursions to places such as Las Vegas, N.M., and the Grand Canyon. There’s still much work to do before that happens, but Saturday’s party will show off all the progress that has been made.

Santa Fe 2926 is ready for her close up.