An overdue return trip for railway workhorse and zoo touchstone
By Clay Eals
We at “Now & Then” usually take our “Now” photos at, or near, the same spot as the “Then” images, but this week, the spatial spread is greater. We’re talking 35 miles.
At least the locales are in King County, and you may abide the distant pairing because the fundamental function of our subject is to move people and things from one place to another.
Those who lived here as children between 1953 and 1980 (or as adults with kid-like awe) likely recall with warmth and admiration, if not worship, the colorful locomotive #1246 that greeted visitors inside the south entrance of Woodland Park Zoo. The Great Northern Railway gifted the steamer to the city on the cusp of dieselizing its locomotive fleet.
Built in 1907, it had what today would be called a “wow” factor. To fully appreciate the gleaming engine, more than 15 feet tall, you had to look way up. In person, it demanded honor and deference — more than could be conveyed by mere visual or verbal depiction.
Of course, #1246 possessed a mobile past that long predated its stationary role as a zoo touchstone. For decades, it toiled on rails from Portland to Vancouver, B.C., and over the Cascades to and from Wenatchee.
For a time during the locomotive’s zoo stint, a placard heralded #1246’s historic status as a consolidation-style engine, featuring two small pilot wheels followed by eight 55-inch-diameter drive wheels:
“They were slower and less spectacular than earlier, lighter types, but their initial (starting) tractive effort was superior, and they could start and pull longer trains. For more than 75 years, they were the workhorses of American railroads, and their performance in mountainous terrain played a significant part in the development of the west.”
The narrative fits “The Railroad Changed Everything” tagline of Snoqualmie’s Northwest Railway Museum, which brought #1246 back to King County in late April after nearly 30 years of negotiations with owners in desert-like southern Oregon. Though looking “like it was pulled up from the bottom of a lake,” says Richard Anderson, executive director, it is reassuringly intact, complete with “grime and grease” from when it last operated 70 years ago.
Restoration will take years, but Anderson says #1246 already stands as a “massive and powerful” asset among the organization’s 75 rail vehicles. “You can walk right up to it and touch it,” he says, and the steam legacy adds “a sense of life.”
Eventually it will bolster an anticipated 35,000 square-foot addition to the museum’s current 24,000 square feet — just in time to awe the senses of a new generation of children.
Thanks to Kevin Weiderstrom, Bob Kelly, Richard Anderson and Dan Kerlee for their invaluable help with this installment!
To see Clay Eals‘ 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.