All Aboard the Steam Engine!

by Will Pickering | SIGMADESIGN Electronics Technician


I have always liked trains, but instead of playing with models, I jumped straight to the real steam engines.

There were tracks across the river from my parents’ house growing up.  My dad knew one of the crew members and we always talked about getting a ride; but before we could, that railroad closed.  When I was thirteen the railroad was purchased and the owners started running passenger excursions out of Battle Ground.  I took a ride and was offered a job selling snacks and working as a tour guide.  It was a fun part time job during school, and after a few years I worked up to being an engineer.  I worked part time as an engineer for a real freight railroad in Oregon after college and for a few years on an ODOT-funded excursion from Portland to Astoria.  I could have turned it into a full time career, but opted to keep the railroad as hobby.

The Chelatchie rail line has changed hands several times and is now owned by Clark County.  The excursion trains are currently operated by the non-profit group I’m involved with, Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.  While the County owns the right of way, our group is responsible for repairing the track and maintaining our equipment to federal standards.   We have operating rights between Heisson and Chelatchie.  Using restored antique equipment, we currently operate the excursions out of Yacolt, which is northeast of Vancouver, WA. Our cars vary from a 1922 Pullman coach to a more modern 1977 steel frame caboose.  The most popular car though is an open air flatcar which allows great visibility.  The current trip ends up taking about 90 minutes which includes a stop at Moulton Falls Park.  There is lots of cool scenery along the way, including a 330 foot rock tunnel and a big trestle over the Lewis River.

 I have always liked trains, but instead of playing with models, I jumped straight to the real ones.

Our recent project is getting our steam locomotive rebuilt and running. The locomotive was made by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) in 1929.  It is a smaller logging engine classified as a 2-8-2T engine which weighs about 84 tons.  This is same type that used to run on our tracks originally. It has been down for repairs the last five years.  We just did test runs last month so it will be up and going this season.  Compared to a modern diesel electric locomotive the older steam engine has a lot more heavy moving parts.  During normal operation they tend to want to shake themselves apart.  On average for every hour of operation we spend about ten hours of maintenance.  It takes a lot more work to maintain and operate but draws a lot more people out to visit.  When the steam engine isn’t operating we use our “modern” 1942 diesel electric locomotive instead.

For me trains have always been a great escape to get away from the computer screen and tiny electronics.   When working on the big heavy stuff we sometimes need tools that take two people to carry.  Due to the age of our equipment, when something breaks we usually have to make the replacement parts since they are no longer available.

So come see me on the railroad!  Visit our website to make reservations –  I’ll look forward to seeing you on the tracks.  All aboard!