Vancouver man leads nonprofit whose volunteers are rebuilding the SP&S 700 steam locomotive for a possible run in 2021

Boiler work on SP&S 700 locomotive looks to the future as a team of volunteers get busy

It’s a well-known fact that Santa loves steam trains, as does the dedicated team that rebuilds one of the nation’s largest and best-preserved steam locomotives.

The SP&S 700 pulled thousands of passenger trains through Vancouver and up the Columbia River Gorge to Pasco and Spokane from 1938 until its last trip in 1956. Restored by volunteers and returned to running condition in 1990 it was visited and photographed by thousands of people who appreciate steam locomotives, even though they may be too young to remember it on a daily basis.

This particular locomotive is one of three owned by the City of Portland. It lives at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, where it is cared for by a group of dedicated volunteers from the nonprofit Pacific Railroad Preservation Association.

It was last in operation in 2015, when its 15-year Federal Railroad Administration safety certification expired, forcing a disassembly, inspection and reassembly of its boiler. Compressed steam superheated up to 900 degrees is an incredibly powerful force, which is why the government requires periodic inspections and certifications to prevent a National Register of Historic Places like the SP&S 700 from becoming a rolling bomb.

About the SP&S 700

Nickname: “First Lady of the North West.”
Built: Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia.
Book: June 20, 1938, at the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway.
Type: 4-8-4 “North”.
Weight: 485,820 pounds (engine only).
Driving wheel diameter: 77 inches.
Tractive effort: 69,800 ft/lbs.
Fuel: Bunker fuel C.
Tender Ability: 20,000 gallons of water; 6,000 gallons of oil.
Typical use: Pulled daily passenger trains of up to 20 cars between Portland, Pasco and Spokane to connect with Great Northern and Northern Pacific by trains.
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Steve Sedaker, a Vancouver man who is president of the preservation association, said the boiler project is still months away from completion. As with other businesses, COVID-19 has delayed restoration work for most of this year.

When complete, dozens of people will have helped rebuild the boiler, including volunteers, commercial ventures and a machining class at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, Ore. The cost of the project is nearly $225,000, paid for with donations and grants.

Randy Woehl, vice-president of the association, manages the work team. Woehl said the process began with the removal of the metal jacket and mineral wool insulation to access the complex array of metal tubes and valves that make up the boiler. Nearly 1,000 metal tubes had to be removed for inspection from inside the boiler.

“It looked like Swiss cheese in there,” Sedaker said.

Once the disassembly was complete, the volunteers had to measure the metal thickness of all the critical parts to make sure it hadn’t become too thin. They used a hand-held ultrasonic unit that’s about the size of a voltmeter an electrician might use. Some of the readings had to be taken as close as every four inches, and each measurement had to be recorded on a large diagram of the boiler to be submitted with the recertification application.

“It was an important part of the job,” Sedaker said, taking nearly 18 months to complete.

At the end of the process, the news was positive: the 700 was in fairly good condition, with only a little metal in the combustion chamber to replace.

The necessary sections were fabricated with the help of a Portland boiler repair shop. While the locomotive was in pieces, many other parts were also replaced, including some special bolts that had to be handcrafted with the help of college machinists.

The next big hurdle for the project is a hydrostatic test, which could take place as early as next month. This is where mechanics fill the rebuilt system with water and check for leaks. Then the entire locomotive – 110 feet, 6 3/4 inches, including its tender – can be reassembled and tested, and certification paperwork completed and sent to the federal government.

The aim is to have the locomotive back in working order by Christmas 2021. If so, expect Santa to be all aboard.

Jose P. Rogers