A steam whistle was blowing, a bell clanging, a jazz trio playing and scores of people cheering as the big, dark lady known as Santa Fe 2926 emerged at a slow, stately pace from her new house.
Santa Fe 2926, a 1944 Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway steam locomotive, has been camped out on a section of side track on Eighth Street, just south of Interstate 40, since the spring of 2002 as members of the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society have labored to get the old girl back to right-out-of-the-factory shape and on the rails again.
More than $2.2 million in donated dollars and 137,000 volunteer hours have gone into the effort, and more is left to be done.
But all the whistle-blowing, bell-ringing, band-playing and crowd-cheering at the locomotive’s Eighth Street residence earlier this month marked a significant development in the steam engine’s methodical march back to viability. For the first time in at least 60 years, Santa Fe 2926 has a roof over her head.
The 150 or so people attending the barbecue party on Eighth Street were celebrating the construction of a steel engine house, measuring 22 feet wide, 23 feet tall and 130 feet long that protects the locomotive from weather, thieves and vandals.
“I think it is a big deal,” said Michael Hartshorne, president of the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society. “This thing will die if it stays in the weather. Rust will kill a steel boiler quicker than anything.”
Fact is, it was dead and has been resurrected only through the unfaltering devotion of society members.
Santa Fe 2926 worked from 1944 to 1953, carrying both freight and passengers from Kansas City through Albuquerque to Los Angeles and San Diego. In 1956, it was donated to the city of Albuquerque in recognition of the city’s 250th anniversary.
The steam engine stood unprotected in Coronado Park, on Second Street just south of I-40, until 1999, when the society purchased it from the city for $1 and made a promise to relocate it. The society moved the steam engine to side tracks at Second and Menaul, where it stayed until it was moved to its present location at Eighth Street in 2002.
Hartshorne said that all those unsheltered years between 1956 and the initiation of renovation efforts in 2002 were cruel to Santa Fe 2926.
“In four separate places, we had to cut out metal pieces of the boiler that were too thin hold pressure,” he said. “One of those pieces was bigger than your dinner table at home. Because of rust, we had to do repair on more than a thousand staybolts, which range in size from 12 inches to three feet long. There are more than three miles of steel tubing nested in that boiler and we had to replace all of it.”
The cost of the steel engine house was $125,000. Gail Kirby, secretary of the society, said $65,000 of that was collected via an online fundraising effort and the remainder was provided by a private donor who wishes to be anonymous.
Hartshorne said 360 people are members of the society by virtue of annual contributions they make to the organization and its renovation efforts. He said that about 90 of those members are engaged in the hands-on renovation of the locomotive, with an average of 25 to 35 people showing up for weekly work sessions on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“It is dirty, cold, hot, greasy work,” Hartshorne said. “This is an enormously, complicated machine. I’ve gained a ton of respect for the people who built these things.”
The old locomotive is huge. It stands 18 feet tall and weighs in at 510,150 pounds. It has eight driving wheels, each 80 inches in diameter, and a bearing that tips the scale at 375 pounds. During the recent celebration for the new engine house, Santa Fe 2926 was pushed from the building by a shuttle wagon. But the society’s goal is to get the locomotive running on its own steam and back on the tracks for excursion trips to places such as Las Vegas, N.M.
For years, the joke was that when any of the members was asked how long achieving that goal was going to take, the answer was always six years. But now society members can truly see the light at the end of the railroad tunnel.
“I think that, right now, we are down to next summer,” Hartshorne said. “We are a lot closer than we used to be. But the progress has been relentless and our members determined.”
Santa Fe 2926, a 1944 steam locomotive, is almost ready to roll down the tracks again