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After decades sitting in park, 1943 iron horse to roll again – but not on own power

According to the city of Modesto, Pacific Gas & Electric will pay to move the old steam locomotive and tender sitting in Beard Brook Park to a new home at the Amtrak station on Held Drive. It also will build a dog park at Beard Brook. The locomotive sits atop a gas line running through the park, and the utility wants it moved for safety reasons.
According to the city of Modesto, Pacific Gas & Electric will pay to move the old steam locomotive and tender sitting in Beard Brook Park to a new home at the Amtrak station on Held Drive. It also will build a dog park at Beard Brook. The locomotive sits atop a gas line running through the park, and the utility wants it moved for safety reasons. jfarrow@modbee.com

There’s the Little Engine that Could, making it over a mountain against all odds, and then there’s the very big Santa Fe No. 2921.

Since 1960, the roughly 650-ton locomotive with tender has sat in Beard Brook Park, 30 feet below the nearest tracks. It once was a popular attraction for kids who loved to climb on it and play engineer. But after a cyclone fence went up around it in the mid-1970s, it sat neglected and deteriorating. And since the mid-’90s, at least, there’s been on-and-off talk of moving the massive steam engine up the hill and out of the park.

One proposal, since the Amtrak station on Held Drive was being built in the late ’90s, has been to move the train there. That idea looks close to becoming a reality because Pacific Gas & Electric has agreed to undertake the effort and, in the train’s spot in Beard Brook, build a dog park.

No. 2921 is one of only six of its kind to survive from among 30 built in 1943 and 1944 – some of the last steam engines ever built.

Safety is the main reason for PG&E’s plans, said Nathan Houx, the city’s acting manager of the Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department. The train sits atop a gas line about five feet below the surface, he said, so moving it will allow PG&E to quickly access underground utilities if the need arises.

“In the process, PG&E is making it a very positive project for the city,” Houx said.

A concept plan of 2921’s new home at the Amtrak station was shared with the Modesto City Council on Tuesday night. It includes bench seating in a plaza of brick and concrete, historic railroad monuments, low-water landscaping and an interpretive pathway.

Council members also viewed a concept plan for the dog park, which dwarfs the Modesto Dog Park at Morris and Enslen avenues. The Beard Brook facility will go from the existing north parking lot to the baseball field in the park. It will be entirely fenced and divided into a smaller area for small dogs and a bigger area for big dogs.

In the 1950s, Santa Fe railroad started donating some of the old engines to towns with railroad histories, towns that wanted to put the engines on display. Modesto was given hers in 1960, according to Bee archives.

There will be bench seating and water fountains for people and dogs. The area includes existing restrooms and a number of large shade trees. It appears a large playground sand pit will be removed but an abstract climbing sculpture will remain.

In addition to being much larger than the Morris dog park, the Beard Brook one is far from a developed neighborhood so avoids “the challenges of constant noise” to residents, Houx said.

Beard Brook Park, between South Morton Boulevard and Dry Creek just southeast of downtown, long has been populated by the homeless. Houx told Bee columnist Jeff Jardine in January that the city has been considering ways to generate more recreational activity there and reclaim it as a regional park.

“The goal is to get positive use of the park, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said Wednesday. “We need to get people back into using the park for positive reasons, and hopefully this will lead us to be able to continue getting other recreational elements into the park.”

No. 2921 is a 4-8-4 steam locomotive built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1943 for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, according to locomotive.wikia.com.

First, there’s the matter of moving that train. Details weren’t available from PG&E on Wednesday, but Houx said the utility plans to hire a couple of companies to relocate 2921. “Basically, what it ends up being is they get it onto a truck and they drive it to the Amtrak station,” he said. A really big truck, with “a whole bunch of wheels,” he added. The locomotive – about 400 tons just on its own, Houx said – and tender would be moved separately and loaded on and off the truck using a crane.

The very slow move across town would take place during the night when traffic is light, Houx said. PG&E expressed hope of being ready for the move in July, he said, but there’s greater confidence that all – the move and the creation of the dog park – will be done by fall.

“PG&E will pay for the relocation expenses in total,” according to a news release from the city, “while the city of Modesto will take on the maintenance plan for the locomotive, ensuring it remains in proper condition in its new location as a tribute to our city’s rail history.”

No money has been budgeted for any restoration and maintenance of the locomotive, Houx said. He expects the city and PG&E will initially work together to “get it presentable and do some cleanup through the process of moving it.” The goal beyond that is to find a rail preservation group that would be interested in restoring it to some degree.

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

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