9 Feb 2010, 9:36pm
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Live steam coming to San Antonio

1925 Baldwin steam locomotive at Pearl Brewery

1925 Baldwin steam locomotive at Pearl Brewery

Question:  How do you return a long dormant steam locomotive back to active passenger service in 2010, with all the heightened concerns about safety?  Answer:  Very, very carefully.  This ain’t 1964.  Way back then early Texas Transportation Museum members including one Dave Wallace, acquired the 1925 Baldwin 0-4-0 steam locomotive from New Braunfels where it had sat idled in a shed since being retired around 1928, brought it to San Antonio, placed it on tracks adjacent to Pearl Brewery, simply filled the boiler with water and fired it up.  While it didn’t explode, it sent out enough smuts and soot that those same volunteers ended up cleaning car windshields for several blocks around.

The locomotive, called #1 by the electricity generating power station, was then used regularly for several years before the museum was offered forty acres of the old Northeast Preserve adjacent to the international airport and relocated.  Faced with a green field site, it took museum volunteers time to lay tracks and build structures to accommodate the delightful small steam switcher, specially designed to move and empty one loaded coal car at a time on rails with tight curves and limited access.  Once #1 was brought to the Wetmore Road location it was only run very briefly.  The museum had acquired a 1942 diesel electric switcher which was far easier to operate and maintain and #1 was relegated to that treacherous location, the wish list.

There it languished, staying in the top ten but never making it to the top of our priorities.  In the early 2000s, the museum embarked on a long term rejuvenation program.  Lacking any funding from the city, county, state or federal governments, we would have to rely on our own resources.  We looked hard at our facilities and, working with a small budget to begin with, began to upgrade as much of the museum as circumstances would allow.  The public noticed and each year we attracted more and more visitors.  More visitors meant more revenue which was in invested in further improvements.

We also began attracting new volunteers.  They could not understand why we were ignoring our best asset, the item which had caused the museum to be formed in the first place and the one with the biggest potential to draw in even more visitors, not only from San Antonio but across the state and beyond.  We crunched all the relevant numbers plus began researching what new regulations, restrictions and legal requirements we would have to follow.  It began to appear that the time was finally right to dust off #1 and bring it back to life.

The key thing was finding volunteers not only with enthusiasm but also the necessary skills to make the project happen.  In this we were very fortunate.  Several remarkable men were ready, willing and able to get started.  We also still had Dave Wallace who had acquired #1 for the museum back in the early 1960s, plus access to the volunteers who had operated it in the 1980s.  This was 2004 and things were looking good.  After about a year’s worth of work we even managed to have it move again under its own power for the first time in a long time,

Under pressure, 2004

Under pressure, 2004

However, just as with old automobiles with which I am more familiar, you get the thing running in order to find out what’s wrong with it.  It became apparent that 20% of its sixty-four flue tubes would need to be replaced.  Appropriate tubes were ordered from a steel foundry in Pennsylvania and partially installed.  But flaring, sealing and beading the small bore pipes required a very specialized tool and one could not be found.  As a result the project stalled.  Our volunteers were disenchanted with this turn of events not to mention exhausted from almost two years of hard effort and decided to take some time off and focus on other things.

Meanwhile the rest of the museum was going from strength to strength.  Somehow the temporary delay began to stretch out.  Once again #1 fell from pole position on our wish list.  At a certain point it became apparent that we had successfully undertaken pretty much all the low cost projects we could and now we needed to tackle the big ticket items that would take more in the way of capital investment than hard work by volunteers.  Despite the economic downturn in late 2007 our own resources were in relatively good shape.  It was time to take the plunge and take on serious debt if necessary to bring #1 back into service at last, on the basis that this would be a catalyst for other much desired projects, such as extending our mainline and building a museum quality display building.

Our first piece of major good fortune was finding the Holman Boiler, conveniently located just around the corner from the museum.  This was after checking with at least a dozen other outfits who would hardly give us the time of day.  Holman was not only enthusiastic about working on our steam locomotive they said they had access to the appropriate sized boiler flue beading tool.  Our next piece of luck was in acquiring the museum’s first ever major grant in its forty-six year existence.  This was given by the Brown Foundation out of Houston expressly for the purpose of getting #1 going again.

And so it came to pass last Saturday that I found myself atop the diminutive locomotive tightening bolts on its steam dome along with Ben Bennett, one of the folks instrumental in moving the project to this point, and Bob Owers, who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for where we are today, which is very, very close to a successful hydrostatic test and a state issued boiler certificate.  With these in hand we can get boiler insurance that will allow us to operate the locative in public.  There is still quite a bit of work to be done but the dream is about to become reality: Live steam passenger service is coming back to San Antonio!


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