Alaska Railroad’s historic Engine 557 may soon return to the rail
The engine in the drawing is Alaska Railroad No. 557, a Consolidation-type steam locomotive. Consolidation is the U.S. designation for the locomotive’s wheel-configuration – 2-8-0 – with 2 leading wheels, 8 drive wheels, and no trailing wheels.
Consolidations were one of the most successful steam-locomotive configurations worldwide. According to an American-Rails.com article by Adam Burns, between the 1870s and 1940s, 35,000 Consolidations were manufactured in the United States.
During World War II, the railway infrastructure in Europe and other areas of conflict was devastated. In response, the U.S. Army Transport Corps designed a heavy-freight locomotive for use in overseas areas. These “Austerity” engines were stripped down Consolidations configured for speedy manufacture, easy operation and ruggedness for working under less-than-ideal conditions.
The modified Consolidations were designated as the S-160 class. They were nicknamed GI Consolidations, and, according to the Engine 557 Restoration Company website, since they were “stripped down for action,” they were also called “Gypsy Rose Lee” locomotives (after the well-known burlesque performer).
There were 2,120 S-160s built between 1942 and 1945 by the three major U.S. locomotive builders: Baldwin, American Locomotive Company and Lima. Most of the S-160s were shipped to Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. However, with the increased freight requirements pressed on the Alaska Railroad (ARR) during the war, 12 of the locomotives found their way to Alaska.
U.S. Army locomotive 3253, built by Baldwin in 1944, was one of those shipped to Alaska. Arriving in Alaska in December 1944, it was renumbered 557, joining the ARR’s 550 cohort of engines. The locomotive is 61’ long, weighs 161,000 pounds and has driving wheels that are 57” in diameter. It originally burned coal, but was converted to oil in the 1950s.
The ARR began adding diesel locomotives to its fleet at the end of World War II and retired all its steam engines except 557 in 1954. Engine 557 was kept to handle conditions such as the frequent flooding in its Nenana train yards, and for special events such as the Alaska state fair. One of its last jobs was shuttling trains through a flooded Nenana in 1962. (Diesel locomotives waited at either end of the flooded area.)
In 1964, No. 557 was sold for scrap and the next year it was shipped to Everett, Washington. Rescued by scrap-metal dealer, Monte Holm, who was also a train enthusiast, it ended up in his Moses Lake scrapyard where he amassed his own private railroad.
There is sat for the next 41 years until Holm’s death in 2006. It was bought from the Holm’s estate by Alaskan’s Jim and Vic Jansen, who returned the locomotive to Alaska in 2012 and donated it back to the ARR with the stipulation that it be restored to operational status.
The ARR passed the locomotive along to the Engine 557 Restoration Company, a nonprofit organization formed to bring the locomotive back to life. Since then the group, primarily through volunteer workers, and with in-kind and monetary donations, has been working on the locomotive in its Wasilla workshop, stripping it down and refurbishing what could be restored, having parts that needed to be replaced manufactured, and upgrading systems to modern safety standards.
Another ARR S-160, No. 556, had been donated to the City of Anchorage in 1959 and put on static display at Delaney Park. During work to remove hazardous materials from that locomotive and restore its appearance, the Municipality of Anchorage collaborated with 557’s restorers to provide still-functional components from 556 for use on 557 in return for non-functional replicas for 556.
After almost a decade, the 557 Restoration Company is nearing completion of the project. Steam tests are projected to be done in 2022. If you are interested in donating to the effort, check out the groups webpage here.
- “2-8-0 Consolidation Locomotive.” Adam Burns. America-Rails.com. 2021
- Conversation with Pat Durand, president of the Engine 557 Restoration Company. 2021
- “Engine 557: A legendary steam locomotive has returned to ride Alaska’s rails again.” The Alaska Community Foundation. 9-8-2015
- History and Status Report sections of the Engine 557 Restoration Company website, 557.alaskarails.org