Steam engine project still on track
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad officials say they will make their deadline for getting a steam engine back up and running in Bryson City.
The project has been in the works for many years, and the steam engine should be ready to roll by July, according to GSMR Marketing Manager Sarah Pressley. GSMR has been documenting progress on the restoration project on a blog since March 2014.
“The return and restoration of engine #1702 has always been the desire since the engine was put out of service in 2005 due to a mechanical issue,” Pressley said. “Structurally the #1702 engine is generally in fair condition. The primary focus of the restoration has centered on the firebox and boiler rebuild, repairs, along with removing the rust resulting from its dormant state.”
People in the community have been curious as to when they will finally see the newly restored steam engine since Swain County completed construction on a turntable back in September.
Believing the return of a steam engine would increase tourism dollars for the county, Swain County commissioners pledged to assist the railroad with the project in 2012. The county took out a $700,000 low-interest loan to pay for the construction of a turntable located on Mitchell Street between the railroad tracks and the county administrative building.
Commissioner David Monteith was standing outside the county building Tuesday morning watching work being done at the turntable site. He is fairly confident the railroad will complete the project by summertime.
“I’m all for it and I think it will be a great attraction for tourists this summer,” he said.
The county plans to pay off the loan over 15 years using room tax revenue, which has been on the rise in the last few years. The county increased the room tax from 3 percent to 4 percent in early 2012 — setting the stage for an annual increase of $110,000 a year in revenue plus the additional revenue the steam engine will bring in once its up and running.
The railroad estimates the steam engine scenic routes will increase daily ridership by 20 percent in addition to the trickle down effect it will have on local businesses and accommodations in Bryson City.
“The return of the steam engine will bring an influx of new and returning passengers to our area,” Pressley said.
In exchange for the $700,000 contribution to the project, the county placed several stipulations on the railroad — they had to create six new full-time jobs to be maintained for 15 years, promise that 50 percent of the steam engine trips would run from Bryson City for 15 years and complete the project within 36 months of the agreement. If the railroad fails to meet any of those terms, it will be required to pay back at least a portion of the grant.
Even though the 36 months is quickly running out, Pressley said the project is still within the timeframe.
“Operating from the finalized agreement, the deadline has not been missed,” she said. “GSMR is in close communication with the Swain County board and they are satisfied with our progress and time frame.”
Pressley said a team of three full-time shop workers was hired with skills ranging from welding to manufacturing to do the restoration on the steam engine. After a full body sand blast, more than 1,000 staybolts were removed and are in the process of being replaced. Several other pieces and parts have been removed, re-welded, or entirely reconstructed depending on the need.
“Outside contractor, Robert Franzen, president and owner of Steam Services of America, was selected to oversee the boiler rebuild. Under his guidance other outside contract workers are working along with the GSMR staff to tediously attend to the boiler,” Pressley said.
The tender and #1702 cab have been relocated inside the restoration shop and are in repair. The tender, which holds the fuel and water used to power the engine, has undergone months of needle scaling work to remove old epoxy and oil. The cab will be fully repaired with new flooring, windows, and seating.
“It is a large capital project,” Pressley said. “The funds are being supplied through Swain County and GMSR. By projects end, GSMR’s provision of funds will exceed that of the grants.”