A Ride on the Mt. Rainier Railroad
2018 RIDE SCHEDULE:
- Regular excursions begin May 26 and run each weekend May-October
- Museum admission is included with train fare
Who hasn’t yearned to hit the road or the rails when you hear that lonesome steam whistle blow? And who doesn’t enjoy a train ride? Even in this day and age that restless urge to roam can be kept in rein by a ride on the Mt. Rainier Railroad.
You may be old enough to remember the romance of trains when real food was served in the dining cars with linen napkins, tablecloths, fine silver and the soothing voices of porters calming an anxious child. I was one of those children; stranded with my parents on the Great Northern when the Kootenai River flooded the tracks and the train had to wait on the tracks until the river receded before resuming our journey to Montana. My first toy was a wooden train built by my Dad; it’s in pieces but I still have it.
Trains are in my blood; perhaps because my grandfather worked for the Great Northern Railroad at the roundhouse in Whitefish, Montana and my mother was raised in a boxcar (today I still wave at engineers when the trains go by at crossroads) though I miss the red cabooses no longer used by railroads. I love the squeal of brakes, the hiss of steam, even the more mundane whistle of diesels stir my soul and give me itchy feet.
For a couple of hours I enjoyed being 10-years old again thanks to a ride on the Mt. Rainier Railroad. We got to Elbe early so we could admire the railroad coaches that have been put out to pasture on the outskirts of Elbe; even retired they are handsome and inspire photographs. We went inside the depot/museum for our tickets and to check out railroad-related items you can purchase ranging from mugs and posters to historical books on trains and/or Mount Rainier National Park.
You’ll hear the train before you see it; some of the smaller children stuck their fingers in their ears to lessen the blast, the way I used to. We were pleased to see so many visitors drawn to experience this. We were booked for the “Autumn Leaes” ride on steam locomotive No. 70.
The train goes to Mineral through a variety of scenery ranging from old barns, forests with a hint of fall color, pastoral scenes of pastures complete with cantering horses. The train crosses the Nisqually River on a bridge – that bridge has been washed out several times over the years, the last time during the flood in 2006. The train skirts Mineral Creek, then crosses Mineral Creek on a smaller bridge before arriving at the Railroad Museum in Mineral.
Here a 30-minute stop is available for passengers to wander about the displays. There’s a lot to see – not only steam locomotives in various stages of usability but also the Camp 6 Logging Structures that were formally displayed at Point Defiance State Park in Tacoma. Many of those locomotives in the shop are historical, others one of a kind. You can peek into the “shop” where volunteers and staff are at work preserving and maintaining these marvelous trains; some sections are roped and off-limits to visitors.
In Mineral four short blasts from the whistle was the signal that passengers needed to re-board the train for the ride back to Elbe. The coaches are comfortable; food and beverages are available as are restrooms.
We’d ridden in a passenger coach on the way to Mineral and on our way back we rode in the cab (there is only enough room in the cab for two passengers). Riding in the cab might not be as comfortable as the coach but it’s exhilarating enough a ride you won’t notice. Here we could see that operating a train is a balancing act that requires a lot of practice and skill to perform.
As passengers we marveled at the skills of Zeb (the Fireman) and Rowdy, the Engineer as they worked in tandem, making adjustments as needed with levers, handles, keeping an eye on the temperature in the firebox – Zeb explained he liked to keep the temperature at about 270 degrees. If you are riding in the cab you are requested to wear close-toed shoes (no open-toed shoes). Don’t wear your Sunday best either – you might get an oil smudge or two. Bring ear-plugs – the whistle is noisy even with earplugs and it the whistle is used at crossroads or when coming into a town (or leaving).
When the train curves around a bend we could look back to see the rest of the train behind us; quite a sight to behold. As we went over the Nisqually River on the bridge I could almost have reached out to touch it.
Incidentally, Mineral Creek is lovely; this is country you can’t see any other way unless you live there or know your way around the back roads. Though the fall color was just getting started the woods were still beautiful, some of the vine maple just showing hints of fall splendor to come.
A more detailed description of the Railroad Museum is also featured on this site; we can’t say enough about the exhibits. You might want to come back on your own and drive to the museum to spend more time viewing the exhibits. A half hour will not be enough for many visitors. For details on the hours of the Museum refer to the article about the Museum on this website and view more photos.
The train ride is about 40 minutes each way with a stop at Mineral. The Mt. Rainier Railroad is in Elbe (54124 Mountain Hwy East) and the Mt. Rainier Railroad Mineral maintenance and restoration shops are in Mineral (349 Mineral Creek Road) and it is well-signed. By car Mineral is about a 10-minute drive from Elbe.
A Visit to the Museum
“This is such a cool place!” That might be your first reaction too when you first set foot inside the Mt. Rainier Railroad Museum. This is not a museum of yellowing pages or dusty antiquities but rather a living museum, an awe-inspiring collection of steam locomotives of various vintages, lovingly cared for and maintained by a paid crew and volunteers.
Stepping out of bright sunlight into the dark, throbbing heart of the museum you’ll need to readjust your vision to take a gander at wrenches of varying lengths, well-used work gloves, a handsome wood-stove, spikes, other tools that glisten with oil and sweat and listen to the clink and clank of tools as crew and volunteers restore and maintain steam engines from bygone logging camps. These locomotives are the thoroughbreds of the Industrial Age; some still under restoration or repair and some still at work such as the steam locomotives that run excursions between Elbe and the museum in Mineral. Even the trains still in the restoration shop being maintained or restored appear eager to hit the rails again thanks to the efforts of the crew and enthusiastic volunteers.
The scents are what we first noticed. Oil and welding, sweat and sawdust, all of these go into making these machines run. In fact one of the first things you realize is just how big these things are. Not only the engines themselves but the tools and equipment it takes to work on them.
From dismantling boilers to riveting them back together, these are skills fast fading in today’s world. At one time 20,000 men knew how to rivet the boilers on a steam locomotive. That number is now fewer than 100, several of whom are working here and passing on their expertise to a new generation of railroader enthusiasts.
These are your grandfather’s engines. Repaired, restored and rebuilt by the staff and a crew of dedicated volunteers, the locomotives are kept in top condition and ready to run. The museum has gathered this historical collection of railcars and equipment, including retired Pullman coaches, from all over the west coast. Much of the equipment came from local logging companies that transitioned from rails to trucks for carrying timber to the mills. Donated to the museum and lovingly restored these mighty engines of steam continue to roll through the foothills of Mount Rainier.
The museum project is being constructed in phases over the next several years. The Mt. Rainier Railroad excursion trains will then run from Elbe directly to the museum site rather than downtown Mineral. When passengers disembark they will be able to take a tour that will include the restoration/maintenance shop, buildings where the steam locomotive collection is stored and other pieces of logging equipment on display about the museum grounds. All of the railroad logging camp exhibits are open during days that they operate the trains. Other railroad equipment you will see includes cranes, equipment cars, speeders, logging donkeys and literally tons of other items. The museum includes stories about the men, women and families that called these camps their home.
We also enjoyed photographing the retired railway cars and cabooses displayed outside the museum and in the “bone yard.” Two logging camp buildings will also be open for viewing including those from Camp 6 that had been displayed for many years at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma. The exhibits help tell the story of Pacific Northwest logging operations past and present with an emphasis on sustainability.
More than 90 percent of the crews who keep the trains in working order are volunteers. As one rail fan put it, “We are not in the business of emulating history. We live, breathe and build history” and “are in the business of living the processes of the past … we run thousands of miles of hard service with steam locomotives on a former logging railroad. We do exactly what the men and women of the past did. And we have to be as good if not better than they were in order to continue doing it …. It is not a replica, it is the real thing.”
A Biography of Train #70
Even trains have a story to tell. Here’s a look into the life of Polson Logging No. 70.
The “70” refers to the tonnage of the locomotive, not the age of the train. It was built for the Polson Logging Company by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, PA. She served Polson’s for about 20 years, one of their prime locomotives. In the 1940s Polson sold their logging operation to Rayonier, Inc. As Rayonier expanded their area they needed even larger locomotives than #70 but since the 70-ton train was in good condition she was used as a work train until 1963 when Rayonier sold her. No. 70 was sold to railroad fan Maynard Lang for the Puget Sound and Snoqualmie Falls Railroad (RR) Museum in Snoqualmie. She was used at Snoqualmie on and off until Mr. Lang died in 1992. She was purchased at an estate sale by Mr. Tom Murray. Murray donated the train to the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad and shipped it to Mineral for restoration.
A decision was made to rebuild No. 70 in 2001 – a project that took about 10 years including substantial boiler work. She went back to work in February 2011. Today she is looking good, restored to her original 1938 “Polson Logging Company” appearance. She continues her work today as the primary motive power for the excursion trains and she’s a fine looking lady!
– Karen Sykes