It was the engine’s inaugural run after a three-year restoration process, so the event drew a flurry of photographers, a crowd of riders and a hurry of foot traffic from downtown merchants and visitors alike.
“I’m a kid when it comes to going out and seeing it come in,” said Sue Williams who works at The Cheddar Box, located right across the street from the train tracks. She made sure to run outside and take in the moment.
“It was a beautiful sight,” agreed Pete Poppins, whose company — Poppins Electric — was doing renovations on what will become Boots Steakhouse across from the depot.
It had been 12 years since the steam engine, originally built in 1942 for service in World War II, had chugged along any length of track. The restoration project began in 2014, after finalization of a 2012 agreement in which the Swain County Commissioners voted to give the railroad a $700,000 grant to help restore the engine.
“It’s our heritage,” said Commissioner David Monteith, “and that’s what we’ve got to promote and push.”
In exchange for the $700,000 contribution — paid for through room tax proceeds — the county required the railroad to create six new full-time jobs to be maintained for 15 years, run at least half of all engine trips from Bryson City for 15 years and complete the project within 36 months of the finalized agreement.
The justification for using public money for the project? Tourism, plain and simple.
“I’m glad to see it here,” Monteith said. “I think it will be a good draw for the county.”
“I think we’ll draw more people on those trains than we have in the past,” agreed Sarah Pressley, marketing manager for the railroad.
If the first run July 26 is any indication, things are off to a good start. The railroad had to add three additional train cars to the engine to accommodate all those who’d bought tickets, amounting to more than 100 extra people.
“People want to ride the steam engine,” Pressley said. “The route might not be the most important thing — they just want to ride the steam engine.”
While scenic train rides are easy to come by, working steam engines are rare. In fact, No. 1702 has the distinction of being the only train in its S-160 class that’s still operating in the United States. Many trains in that class were shipped out to Europe and Asia as part of the war effort, but No. 1702 remained stationed at Fort Bragg. The train’s also accumulated a bit of star power in its day, appearing in the 1966 film “This Property Is Condemned,” which featured Robert Redford, Natalie Wood and Charles Bronson.
“It’s a bragging right,” said Tee Angel, who owns Anthony’s Italian Restaurant in Bryson City. “We get to say we have something special and unique, and Bryson City as a whole is special and unique.”
And the more that’s special and unique about Bryson, the more people are likely to spend their tourism dollars there. When the deal was being drafted in 2012, the estimate was that the steam engine would increase ridership by 15 to 20 percent, equaling between 27,000 and 36,000 more riders each year. That means more revenue for the railroad but also more spending in Bryson City, where the rides depart, and in downtown Dillsboro and the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where some of the routes have layovers, giving passengers a chance to explore on foot.
The expectation is that the steam engine could also encourage visitation from people who have no intention of riding the train. Angel, for example, recalls overhearing a conversation by a couple visiting the downtown that she believes is indicative of a larger truth.
“They said, ‘Even if we don’t get to ride on it, it’s so nice to see it,’” Angel said. “I think that’s how people feel about it. Even if they don’t ride it, they like looking at it. I think more people will come and will come downtown, and that’s always a plus.”
Folks in Dillsboro are also expecting to see a boost. Excitement about the steam engine has been running high in town for months, with merchants hoping to reap the benefits of an increased passenger load and bystander excitement.
“Not only are people in Dillsboro excited about it, it looks like the general public is excited about it,” said Mike Potts, co-owner of Nancy Tut’s Christmas Shop.
Potts and his wife Lisa have owned the store for more than 20 years, and they’ve watched Dillsboro cycle through many a series of ups and downs. Perhaps the biggest down, though, came in 2008 when the little town got hit by the double whammy of a recession and the railroad’s decision to move its main depot to Bryson City. Before, all the train’s departures had left from Dillsboro, and merchants had come to depend on that automatic stream of customers to support their sales.
That’s no longer the case. Things have been on the upswing in Dillsboro for years before the steam engine’s reappearance — Potts, for example, has seen sales increase steadily for the past four years. Dillsboro is no longer just about the train.
“Our buildings have filled back up, and the town is full again,” Potts said.
For Joe Beasley, owner of Haywood Smokehouse, the train and advent of steam service certainly weren’t the deciding factors in electing to open a second location of the Smokehouse in Dillsboro, or in opening two more businesses on Front Street, just across from the railroad tracks. The Haywood Smokehouse Mercantile and Ice Cream Shop is already open, and Boots Steakhouse is expected to open sometime in September. But he’s happy the train is there.
“The way we look at it is hopefully it’s icing on the cake,” Beasley said. “I don’t necessarily want to have to create a business model around the train, because they don’t come year-round and they don’t come seven days a week. But it’s certainly a very welcome addition when they are here.”
Angel, for one, is certainly looking forward to admiring that newly refurbished steam engine for many years to come.
“It rolled in at sunset, and it was just like seeing a piece of history coming back,” she said.
A short history of Engine No. 1702
• August 1942 — The engine is built by The Baldwin Locomotive Works Company in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, intended for European service during World War II. It’s part of the S-160 class, which included 2,120 locomotives, making it the largest class ever built.
• 1946 — No. 1702 remains on U.S. soil at Fort Bragg during World War II, but afterward the locomotive is sold to Warren and Saline River Railroad in Arkansas.
• 1966 — After a sale to the Reader Railroad in Arkansas, an extensive overhaul, and service on the Possum Trot Line, No. 1702 stars in Paramount Pictures’ “This Property is Condemned.”
• 1975 — Long Distributing Company in Louisiana purchases No. 1702.
• 1985 — The Eastern Nebraska Chapter of NRHS buys the engine and sells it to Don Smeal, of Snyder, Nebraska. Smeal then leases the locomotive back to the chapter for use in tourist excursions.
• 1991 — Malcom MacNeill purchases the locomotive for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, putting it through yet another extensive overhaul. The engine is put back into service.
• 2003 — No. 1702 is returned to its original brass drive bearings.
• 2004 — After tests determine that the remaining service metal is not sufficient, the locomotive is taken out of service.
• 2014 — In collaboration with Swain County, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad starts work to bring No. 1702 back on line. The process is documented at www.restoring1702.com.
• 2016 — The steam engine chugs to life once again.