Historic steam engine back on track

Benny Westcott

One of 62 surviving steam locomotives in Oregon will ride the rails between Lebanon and Sweet Home for the foreseeable future.

On Friday, Nov. 19, the Santa Maria Valley 205, a fully restored 1924 Baldwin 2-6-2 prairie locomotive, made its inaugural public run on the Albany & Eastern Railroad from the Santiam Excursion Trains station at 750 S. Third St. in Lebanon to the Weyerhaeuser/Willamette Industries mill site in Sweet Home and back. Boarding the train for the VIP event and attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony were about 150 community members, railroad vendors and friends and family of those involved with the 205’s restoration.

Yamhill resident George Lavacot is the train’s primary restorer. With the help of friends, he worked at his Independence shop for 38 years on the 97-year-old train, which was constructed by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone, Pennsylvania. Built for the San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad (SJ&E), the engine was purchased by the Southern California Edison Company, which used it in the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project north of Fresno.

When the SJ&E line was abandoned in 1933, Edison sold the locomotive to the Santa Maria Valley Railroad, where it moved freight cars until it was retired in May 1950 and displayed at the Santa Maria Fairpark in Santa Maria.

Lavacot acquired the locomotive in 1983.

“This has been a labor of love, not only for me, but for many others,” he said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Our shared love, respect and admiration for the steam era and confidence that this project was doable has gotten us here today.”

“First of all,” he continued, outlining his perspective on the daunting project, “a steam locomotive is the closest machine man has created to replicate life itself. They are living and breathing creatures, and sometimes they need a little help from mankind.

“One night, years ago, the Lord came to me in a vision and told me there was a steam locomotive in the fairgrounds in Santa Maria. I should go there, take it out of its resting place, and make it run again. I asked what I should do once it’s done, and the response was ‘I’ll get back to you on that.'”

Thanking his wife, Maria, Lavacot said, “We both had no idea it would take 38 years to get here today. I’m not sure what you are going to do with me now that I will be around the house much more.”

A small stuffed animal pig sits atop the train’s headlight. Lavacot explained, “As a lot of you know, once a nickname is attached to someone or thing it sticks. A good friend of mine, Richard Yager, who loved large mainline steam locomotives, called the 205 ‘just another Baldwin Pig.’ The name of ‘Porky’ stuck ever since.”

Albany & Eastern Railroad owner Rick Franklin first met Lavacot 25 years ago, and they connected over a shared passion for trains. He would regularly visit Lavacot’s shop in Independence where the 205 was restored.

“This engine will help the community foster an education for the younger generation of how this nation was built on trains and railroads,” Franklin said. “We’ll be able to share this with generations to come.”

Lebanon Mayor Paul Aziz emphasized “how important this train coming to Lebanon is for us.”

The self-described “rail fan” described his type as “the people you see hanging off of banisters and tripping over hills to get pictures of trains. This is very exciting, and it will bring people from all over the country and world. This baby is one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever seen restored.”

As Aziz sat and gazed out a train window as it rolled along a half-hour later, he said, “It’s amazing. I’m in heaven. I’m a train buff, and I have been since I was a kid. The community has embraced it as its own baby. They are excited about this train, and to hear that steam whistle.”

Kathy and Ray Burris came all the way from Jefferson County, Colorado, to see the engine. They scored a spot on the inaugural ride because they know Franklin.

“To experience steam is a unique experience and one that you never forget,” Kathy said. “We have some steam engines in Colorado. But George (Lavacot) has put 38 years of his life into this locomotive, so there’s something personal and magical about it. That’s why we came here.”

She had the opportunity to tour the barn in which the Santa Maria 205 was housed while George and his friends were restoring it.

“It was like walking into a cathedral,” she said. “You whispered. It was a life-changing experience seeing the engineering behind this and to watch how many pieces it takes to make this thing go. That sound and the smell of steam is just something that we never experience anymore,” she added. “It’s something special.”

On July 7, Santiam Excursion Trains officially announced via Facebook that it would be using the steam engine. Three weeks ago, the company began running it to “test the track,” according to Santiam director Nancy Randall.

“We tested it by itself and with different amounts of cars,” she said. “It handles differently than a diesel engine. The grade is different. We wanted to do it right.”

Even test runs drew attention.

“People have been more than excited,” she said. “Our social media pages and our phones have been blowing up. People could hear the whistle as the train went through town.”

Randall said Santiam Excursion Trains will “intermix the steam engine into our normal busy schedule,” using it on the Candy Cane Express and other special rides. There may also be future “steam weekend” events.

“This is exciting for our community, what this brings,” she said. “It provides a unique experience and a fun option for people.”

Lavacot expressed his appreciation for the old engine’s new stop.

“I’m so grateful that this lovely lady has a new home, and what a stellar home it is,” he said. “I have great respect and confidence in Rick Franklin and his crew. They will introduce the power and beauty of steam to a whole new generation. Seeing the 205 back on the rails makes the past 38 years well worth the effort.”

To learn more about Santiam Excursion Trains, call (541) 619-0342 or visit https://santiamexcursiontrains.com/.