Train enthusiasts celebrate steam locomotive’s 100th

A train that was expected to last only 30 or 40 years was the subject of celebration on Feb. 3 as fans of the Santa Maria Valley 205 steam locomotive gathered for its 100th “birthday.”

From left, train owner Rick Franklin, train restorer George Lavacot and train historian Martin Hansen pose for a photo prior to boarding the Santa Maria locomotive for a special ride on Feb. 3.

Though reading off a prepared statement, owner Rick Franklin spoke from the heart as he began to – almost imperceptibly – choke back tears while saying, “It is extremely important to me to tell you how much I value the people of our community, both the community of Lebanon and the community of people that are dedicated to the preservation of steam-powered antique equipment.”

The Santa Maria Valley 205, a fully restored 1924 Baldwin 2-6-2 prairie steam locomotive, was constructed by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone, Pa., for the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project north of Fresno by San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad (SJ&E). After the SJ&E line was abandoned in 1933, the Southern California Edison Company sold the locomotive to the Santa Maria Valley Railroad, where it moved freight cars until it was retired in May 1950. The train was displayed at the Santa Maria Fairpark in Santa Maria until Yamhill resident George Lavacot acquired it in 1983.

For 38 years, Lavacot and his friends restored every bit of the 205 out of his shop in Independence until Lebanon resident Franklin, of the Albany & Eastern Railroad Company, acquired the final product. Franklin had met Lavacot some 30 years ago and would visit him while he worked on the steam engine. The train made its first public run out of Lebanon in November 2021 through Santiam Excursion Trains, which provides train tours on the railroad.

Reflecting on the number of decades it took to finish the restoration, Lavacot said “the first day we fired it up, the first time we blew the whistle” was the most memorable moment .

Steam billows up out of the Santa Maria Valley 205 locomotive as it traverses its way toward Crabtree during a special celebration on Feb. 3.

“It is my opinion that the 205 is the most flawlessly restored and beautiful locomotive anywhere in the world,” Franklin said.

During the celebration, Martin Hansen, a train historian and close friend of Lavacot, shared that diesel trains began replacing steam locomotives in the 1950s, forcing most steam engines to the scrapyard. It was a “miracle” the 205 instead landed at the fairpark, but it began to slowly deteriorate year after year as it sat exposed to the elements. It was a second “miracle” that Lavacot was able to get his hands on the train and restore it to its original, working condition. The third “miracle” was Franklin’s offer to put it back on the rails for the public, he said.

“What you’re going to enjoy today is the fruits of all these people saving this engine,” Hansen said. “This thing’s 100 years old and now stronger and better than it’s ever been, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t run for another hundred years thanks to the fact that George had the foresight to save it and Rick’s got the foresight to keep it up and keep it operating for the public.”

Among the speakers were also Mayor Kenneth Jackola and Linn County Commissioner Sherrie Sprenger.

Nate Degerstedt and Ed Bohm wear pig noses to honor the Santa Maria locomotive and their friend George Lavacot, who restored the train and nicknamed it “Porky.”

Embarking out of Lebanon’s Santiam Travel Station, the Santa Maria Valley 205 carried some 160 guests up to Crabtree. Steam billowed above the train’s smokestack, briefly dusting the clear, sunny sky. Guests witnessed the wild and manicured rural scenery along the way. Some guests braved the slightly chilly weather for a chance to stand in an open car directly behind the engine, while others remained inside for food and conversation. Santiam Excursion Trains provided champagne and cupcakes in honor of the train’s 100 years.

Prior to yelling “all aboard,” Franklin expressed deep appreciation for all who participated in restoring the train, and shared his vision for the future of the locomotive.

“Her journey has led us here for a reason. I believe that reason is to expose a whole new generation of children to the power of American ingenuity and possibility. Sharing this locomotive with our kids and teaching them about the power of steam is very important and our goal on this railroad is to move these generations forward.”