The journey to return a central Alberta steam engine legend to the rails will begin next week.
Spirit of Alberta #6060 has been parked near Stettler since 2012, awaiting repairs to its massive boiler, a huge job that is expected to cost $650,000.
Rocky Mountain Rail Society’s fundraising efforts have been chugging along with $50,000 in Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis funding and donations banked.
With society volunteers itching to get started on the restoration, they decided to go ahead with the first task, replacing about 70 boiler staybolts on the engine that rolled out of a Montreal train works in 1944.
“We thought we’ve got enough money to do this first step, so we thought, ‘What the heck, let’s do it,’’” said society member Rich Graydon.
“We’re putting some money into the economy at the same time and, hopefully, encourage some other non-profits to try to do things to keep the economy going.”
A team of boiler specialists from Edmonton-based dfBoiler Tube Industries is coming down on Monday to begin the tricky job of removing all of the boiler staybolts.
“Some of them have been there since the locomotive was built,” said Graydon. “They’ve been there for 75 years now, so they’re going to be a little bit of a challenge to get out.
“Of course, you can’t damage the boiler to get them out. It’s a very finicky process to get them out.”
The staybolts provide internal strength while allowing steam and water to flow between them.
“They’re like the rib cage of a person.”
For the society, getting this far has been an achievement and a tribute to its members’ dedication to preserving a unique piece of railway history.
The journey began when a routine safety inspection of the boiler using X-ray-type equipment detected anomalies in the metal. That immediately set off alarm bells, because the boiler is under 260 per square inches of pressure and safety is paramount. Pieces of the boiler were cut out for further testing.
“It was us erring on the side of caution,” he said.
As it turned out, the anomalies were simply striations caused by the method of folding layers of steel used at the time the boiler was made. Between the testing and developing a repair plan, the society has spent about $130,000 over the past eight years.
Built during the Second World War, innovative techniques were used to save metal, which turned out to be hugely successful. Unlike most locomotives, 6060 could operate as a passenger locomotive, while having the different kind of pulling power required for a freight locomotive.
“It’s really a unique design. The conical nose on it was CN’s first attempt at streamlining steam engines.”
When it’s up and running, the engine is the largest operating steam engine in Canada.
Despite the intimidating cost of full repairs, the society remains optimistic that 6060 will one day be pulling passengers again for Alberta Prairie Steam Tours, which offers steam engine trips from Stettler to Big Valley.
Unfortunately, due to pandemic precautions, all trips have been postponed this year.
Spirit of Alberta #6060’s career ended in 1959 and it became a static display in Jasper in 1962. It was restored by CN a decade later and ran steam tours out of Toronto until it was gifted to Alberta in 1980.
It began operating with Alberta Prairie Steam Tours in 1998.