Steam locomotive No. 39 could be lost to LI

Don Fisher, president of the Railroad Museum of Don Fisher, president of the Railroad Museum of Long Island, stands by the historic LIRR locomotive No. 39 stationed by the museum in Riverhead. (March 29, 2013) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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After 33 years of on-and-off efforts to restore historic Long Island Rail Road steam locomotive No. 39 in Riverhead, its owner could be shipping the engine off to rehabilitation in Pennsylvania.

But if the latest plan to get the locomotive running gains traction, No. 39 wouldn't return to Long Island for at least 50 years -- if ever.

The Riverhead-based Railroad Museum of Long Island, owner of the 39, officially acknowledged last month that the engine would probably never run again if it remained here.

The museum signed an agreement with the Strasburg Rail Road Co., a historic line in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

The contract states that if the museum raises and contributes $900,000 and trucks the locomotive and its tender to Strasburg, the railroad will contribute $1 million in parts and labor to complete restoration within three years.

After that, the museum would lease No. 39, which was built in 1929 and last operated in 1955, to Strasburg for 48 years. Then, the locomotive could return to the Island if the museum can run it here.

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"This partnership is the best way to get the locomotive restored and into operation," museum president Don Fisher said. "It was either this or it continues to rust away in Riverhead."

"It will be a long time before it comes back to run on Long Island, if ever," he continued. "But at least we'll get it restored, and $900,000 is certainly more obtainable than $2 million" -- the amount needed if the museum paid for the restoration.

Fisher said even if the museum had been able to pay for restoration, "there were the challenges of running it on Long Island."

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Those include no water sources between the museum's facilities in Riverhead and Greenport, no building in which to maintain the engine, no passenger coaches, no working turntables at Riverhead or Greenport to reverse the engine, and legal and practical issues that would need to be resolved with the LIRR to run the locomotive on its rails.

It would cost at least $3 million to restore the turntable in Greenport, Fisher said. It would cost an additional $7 million to install and restore a turntable obtained in Buffalo at the museum's Riverhead site and build new tracks to connect it to a new maintenance facility.

Once restored, Fisher said, "we can't let it sit because it's just going to rust."

The museum in 1996 received an $800,000 federal transportation grant toward restoration. It used that money to send the 39's boiler and firebox to Strasburg for rehabilitation. Much of that work was completed, and the boiler and firebox remain in Pennsylvania.

Strasburg, founded in 1832, has been operating as a tourist steam railroad since 1958. Its president, Linn Moedinger, said ridership has increased so it can use a third large steam locomotive. "We're in the middle of Pennsylvania Railroad territory, and 39 is basically a Pennsy engine [because the Pennsylvania used to own the LIRR] so from a historical interpretation standpoint it fits in," he said.

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Alexandra Wolfe, preservation services director for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, said having the locomotive leave Long Island "seems like a missed opportunity" for promoting the region's history and tourism. But she added that the agreement "allows the engine to be functioning and that wards off further deterioration, and that is the first priority."

Engine 39 is one of three remaining G5s-class locomotives built for the Pennsylvania Railroad. No. 35, built in 1928 and retired in 1955, is at the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum, which is trying to restore it to run on its property and possibly LIRR tracks.

Bill Bell, development director at the Oyster Bay museum, said his group is awaiting approval from the Town of Oyster Bay, which owns the site, on a contract to ship the engine and its tender to an Alabama company for restoration.

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