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Steam locomotive No. 35 being restored in Alabama

Volunteers from the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum load

Volunteers from the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum load pieces of Long Island Rail Road steam locomotive No. 35 onto a tractor-trailer for shipment to Alabama for restoration in the first step towards getting the engine running again. Credit: Lauren Daitz

After more than a decade of planning and fundraising, the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum has started the process of restoring Long Island Rail Road steam locomotive No. 35 so it can be operated on display.

Meanwhile, the Railroad Museum of Long Island is continuing its fundraising so a Pennsylvania tourist railroad can restore LIRR locomotive No. 39 for operation there.

No. 35, built in 1928 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the LIRR's then-parent company, was retired in 1955 and put on display in Eisenhower Park. For more than a decade it has been sitting in pieces at the museum site at the end of the LIRR's Oyster Bay branch.

But two weeks ago a dozen volunteers loaded the 68-inch drive wheels, drive rods and pilot truck assembly, which is the front-wheel set of the locomotive, onto a tractor trailer for a trip to the Steam Operations Corp. in Alabama.

"It's exciting because it's the first step in the movement from preservation to restoration," said board member Steven Torberg, who started the rehabilitation effort with another nonprofit that later transformed into the museum.

The Alabama company will restore the initial parts, and within the next year the frame for the locomotive will be trucked to Alabama and overhauled.

In a visit five years ago, Steam Operations president Scott Lindsay determined that the tender that carries the fuel for the locomotive was so deteriorated that it needed to be replaced. "The plan is to construct a totally new tender to the same basic specs as the existing one," Torberg said.

The museum has $570,000 from a 2006 grant that should cover construction of the tender and the first stage of restoration for the locomotive, Torberg said.

Now it needs to come up with another $1 million to complete the restoration, estimated to take three to five years. The second phase would include the largest piece of the project -- rebuilding the firebox and boiler that creates the steam.

"That's really time-consuming, specialized work" that has to be done to federal standards if the engine is ever going to run again, Torberg said. All of the parts would be trucked back to Long Island and reassembled here.

"Our intention is to operate it as an active display, which means the engine will be fully operational and be used on the grounds of the museum as an educational tool, teaching people how it operated and its history, because you can't really appreciate a steam locomotive that's static," Torberg said.

As for eventually using the 118.5-ton locomotive to pull excursion trains on active LIRR tracks, he said: "That's always a hope, but it's not something we're counting on."

Don Fisher, president of the Railroad Museum of Long Island based in Riverhead and Greenport, is also looking for a happy ending for the other surviving LIRR G5 class locomotive, which sits rusting in Riverhead.

In 2013, after 33 years of on-and-off efforts to restore No. 39, the East End museum announced a controversial plan to ship the locomotive to the Strasburg Rail Road Co. in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. The contract specifies that No. 39 wouldn't return to Long Island for at least 50 years -- if ever. But the museum conceded that the engine probably would never run again if it remained here.

The contract states that if the museum raises $900,000 and trucks the locomotive and its tender to Strasburg within 15 years of signing the agreement, the Strasburg railroad will contribute $1 million in parts and labor to complete restoration within three years. After that, the museum would lease No. 39, built in 1929 and last operated in 1955, to Strasburg for 48 years. The locomotive could then return to the Island if the museum can run it here.

Fisher said his group has raised a little more than $125,000 so far. "It's slow and steady," he said. "It's tough to get people to fund anything to do with industrial preservation," especially when the economy is still somewhat weak.

And the fact that the engine might never come back to Long Island makes it harder to attract grants and donors, he said. "We knew that, so that's why we set up a 15-year contract. We certainly hope it won't take us 15 years raise the money."

The Oyster Bay nonprofit more than a year ago received more than $700,000 in county and private grants toward the $1.4 million restoration of the hamlet's closed historic railroad depot and recently unveiled construction plans for the project and kicked off a fundraising campaign.

The Town of Oyster Bay acquired the station in 2004, five years after the LIRR vacated the facility listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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