On March 15th, The Railroad Museum of Long Island issued a press release announcing an agreement between themselves and the Strasburg Railroad to restore and operate ex-LIRR G5s Steam Locomotive Number 39. This agreement culminates almost six months of talks between the two parties to hammer out an agreement.
The terms of the contract provide for the Railroad Museum of Long Island to raise $900,000 and transport the locomotive to Strasburg. Strasburg Railroad will add $1,086,861.00 to the project, complete the restoration of 39 in three years and then operate the locomotive on their property for a period of 48 years.
RMLI President Don Fisher stated “this partnership is the best way to get the locomotive restored and into operation. After thirty-three years of trying, New Yorkers and others living in the Pennsylvania Railroad region may finally ride behind this historic steam engine. We need to complete this project with a grass-roots effort. I believe the interest and support for restoring the locomotive will be there.”
This exciting development is the latest chapter in the restoration of the ex-LIRR steam locomotive, a movement that actually began during the 1970’s as an attempt to ready her for operation to celebrate the bicentennial. Retired in 1955, Engine 39 was donated to the Museums at Stony Brook where it resided until 1980, when a preservation group was created to move the engine back to railroad property to begin restoration. The move was made on April 20, 1980, and over the years portions of the locomotive were worked on by volunteers. The locomotive subsequently became the property of the Railroad Museum of Long Island in 1992 when a predecessor organization was dissolved. RMLI began seeking funding for restoration, and in 1994 applied for Federal ISTEA funding in the amount of $800,000 for restoration of the locomotive. Delays in the approval process took years, and by the time funding was released, the cost to refurbish the engine was much greater than the money allotted. Work on the locomotive, being performed already by Strasburg Railroad, was continued until funding was exhausted.
At present, some of the locomotive is still at Strasburg Railroad, and the remaining parts (including the running gear and tender) are at RMLI in Riverhead, NY. These parts will need to be moved to Strasburg as part of the terms of the deal. Strasburg Railroad is the oldest operating shortline railroad in the United States, and the quality of workmanship they do both on their own equipment and contract work is outstanding. It is considered the “gold standard” of tourist railroads and steam restoration shops by many. So provided the funding is raised, this may give Engine 39 its best chance of operating once again.
The agreement to operate Engine 39 at Strasburg eliminates another major hurdle any restoration of the locomotive has had in the past – that is where it would operate after restoration was completed. A firm commitment could never be reached from Long Island Rail Road to allow the locomotive to operate, and aside from that, there never was another viable place on Long Island for the engine to run. Strasburg allows the locomotive to be operated daily if wanted, and is within driving distance for Long Islanders to see her under steam once again.
The devil in the details will be the $900,000 needed to be raised by RMLI, which will be the largest fundraising effort the organization has ever undertaken. Operation at Strasburg could also be beneficial to this, as donors now know when and where the locomotive will operate. The possibility of tapping into additional fundraising sources could also be possible through the many Pennsylvania Railroad fans who would love to once again see an Altoona-built product under steam. At one time, Strasburg operated two ex-PRR steamers belonging to the adjacent Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, and their retirement has left a void for many fans.
The Pennsylvania Railroad G5s locomotive was known as the “Pittsburgh Commuter Engine,” and was specifically built by the railroad’s Juniata Shops in Altoona for commuter operations out of the Steel City. Its construction was ideal for short distance commuting with frequent stops. A total of 90 G5s Ten Wheelers were built for the PRR, and another 31 more were built specifically for the Long Island Rail Road. The G5s were operated right up until the end of steam, and is one of the most well preserved classes of PRR steam locomotives, with a total of three surviving the scrapper’s torch. (Aside from 39, LIRR 35 is owned by Nassau County in New York and cared for by the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum, and PRR 5741 is cosmetically restored and resides indoors across the street from Strasburg Railroad at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.)
So now the challenge is on for RMLI and for railfans interested in seeing Engine 39 fired up and returned to service. Tax-deductible donations may be made to “RMLI Engine 39” at P.O. Box 726, Greenport, NY 11944. For membership information, the museum may be contacted at that address or they can be reached at their website http://www.rmli.us.