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Rusty Wheels and Big Dreams

In Libby, a small band of volunteers is restoring a piece of Montana's railroad history

LIBBY – J. Neils Lumber Co. steam locomotive No. 4 isn’t much to look at these days. Most people who see it may think it’s a long-forgotten hulk of scrap, but to Ron Carter and other volunteers at the Heritage Museum in Libby “it looks beautiful.”

Now, after being displayed for nearly 50 years, the locomotive that once hauled timber from the forest to the mills is being restored to operating condition. If successful, the old “Shay” type locomotive built in 1906 would be the only operating standard gauge steam engine in Montana.

Shay locomotives, like the 37-ton No. 4 built by the Lima Locomotive Works in Ohio, were specifically designed to work on poorly constructed track, common at logging sites in the early 20th century. The No. 4 began its career working for a logging company in northern Minnesota before being brought to Libby in 1917. In Montana, the old steam train brought logs to the mill until it was placed in storage in 1946 and replaced by road trucks. In 1963, J. Neils Lumber successor St. Regis Lumber Co. cleaned up the engine and put it on display in Libby. A decade later it was loaned to the museum and placed along U.S. Highway 2. But after decades of outdoor display, the relic was in rough shape by the 2000s, Carter said.

“It was just a disgrace,” Carter said of the engine’s condition. “So about two years ago we decided we had to do something.”

Progress was slow at first, but in December 2011 the engine was moved from its display location to the same shop building it was stored and maintained in when it worked for the lumber company. Since then a small band of volunteers has worked on the engine a few hours every Saturday morning.

Because steam locomotives are no longer made, new parts are unavailable and restoring an engine to operating condition can often be a long and expensive process. Carter, who had volunteered at the museum for 10 years and heads up the project, said so far the group has raised $8,000. Much of the money will be used to repair the boiler, which creates steam to move pistons and turns the wheels. That part of the restoration is being headed up by Jay Matthews, a retired union boilermaker from Libby. He said the engine must pass a review by a state boiler inspector before it can run. The inspector’s first visit earlier this year led to some surprises for the official, who rarely looks at boilers built a century ago.

“They don’t see stuff like this every day; they inspect school and building boilers,” Matthews said. “They are used to looking at modern stuff and when they come and see this they are at a loss.”

An ultrasound was recently completed on the boiler and the results of those tests will help volunteers determine how much the restoration will cost. Until then, Carter, Matthews and the others work on various projects. On a recent Saturday, Matthews was curled up in the cramped smokebox in the front of the engine trying to remove some of the weather-damaged iron. Meanwhile, Carter has been working on securing some land and railroad track the engine can run on when it’s rebuilt. Immediate plans call for a loop around the museum.

The train’s restoration was almost derailed earlier this year when it was discovered the museum didn’t own the engine. According to paperwork in the museum’s records, the engine was on loan and still owned by International Paper, which owns St. Regis Lumber’s assets.

Jay Matthews cleans out corroded metal from the inside of the boiler of J. Neils Lumber Co. No. 4. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

“They had no idea they even had it,” said museum president Jay Goley, who contacted the company about acquiring the train. Once International Paper confirmed it did indeed own the 106-year-old steam train, officials decided to sell it to the museum for one dollar.

“They knew we had it and that it was important to Libby, so they decided to give it to us,” Goley said. “It’s an important part of the history of the city and (Lincoln) County.”

Goley, like the other people who have dedicated their weekend mornings to swinging hammers and crawling around the old steam train, lights up when he talks about the project.

“I’m looking forward to getting up on that thing one day,” Goley said.

Carter acknowledged that restoring a 100-year-old steam train is no easy task, but he remains hopeful that within a few years the No. 4 will be steaming down the tracks and carrying passengers around the museum.

“We’re dreamers and visionaries, but we’re also workers and that’s what will make the difference,” he said. “Sometimes we shake our head and think that we don’t know what we’re doing, but we’ve got the knowledge and the people who can make the difference.”

The Libby community has also rallied around the project, donating money, time and equipment to the effort. Carter said in a town that has seen its fair share of tough times, restoring the train is the type of “inspiring” project Libby needs. He also said that when people see the engine, it’s hard not to be intrigued, which is how he first got involved.

“I’m not a railroad fanatic,” he said. “But I’m getting there.”

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