CONWAY — Railfans were delighted to see the return over Father’s Day Weekend of the steam-powered No. 7470 engine to the high rails of the Conway Scenic Railroad.
One of 14 steam locomotives still operating in New England, the 1921-built No. 7470 is one of seven in the region that are standard gauge.
In the weeks since that inaugural run, it also has seen occasional service on the excursion line’s Bartlett runs as well, supplementing the railroad's six diesel locomotives.
Today, it will be leading the Conway Scenic’s first excursion to the Mt. Washington Regional Airport during an inaugural “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” event.
“She will lead the train to the airport in Whitefield, which the Conway Scenic has been to only once, in 2011,” said Susan Logan, marketing director for the railroad.
Departing from North Conway at 9 a.m., the excursion will take passengers on the rails to the airport near Hazen’s Crossing in Whitefield, arriving at approximately 11:45 a.m.
Passengers will be able to spend about two hours to enjoy a classic car cruise-in; antique tractor show; tour of a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter; stunt pilots Jason Flood and Scott Francis; and classic airplane and helicopter rides as well as ATV rides (extra fees apply).
For people already at the event, the CSRR will offer a 12:15 p.m. departure with the No. 7470 steam locomotive in the lead. The train will travel to Quebec Junction, where passengers can photograph the steam engine in action. For rates and other information, go to conwayscenic.com or call (603) 356-5421.
The 7470 locomotive had been dormant since the Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts' last held its “Steam in the Snow” at the Conway Scenic in January 2015, after which the CSRR took it out of commission for a federally required maintenance overhaul of its boiler that is now required every 15 years.
(The railroad also owns steam locomotive No. 501, built in 1910, which is a candidate for restoration, but that would be five to 10 years down the road, according to railroad owner David Swirk).
The majority of 7470's rebuild was done over the winter under the auspices of Brian Fanslau of Maine Locomotive & Machine Works and Boothbay Railway Village and crew, who worked with Conway Scenic crews, said Derek Palmieri, operations manager, and Logan, the railroad’s marketing director.
“Brian has a long history with Conway Scenic Railroad. In addition to working on our steam engine, his parents have owned a caboose here for years,” said Logan.
Added Palmieri: “Brian and his team did a phenomenal job, working in house with us and training our crew on maintenance and how to be firemen and engineers on that particular engine.
"It’s great to see her back on line, as railfans have been very excited,” said Palmieri, adding, “Personally, I have an incredible feeling of pride, knowing that our team and Brian’s crew all came together to make this possible. I am very humbled to see it back in service.”
Fanslau, who oversaw the restoration with his team of mechanical engineers Jason LaMontagne, Joe Card of South Carver, Mass.’s Edaville Railroad and Hannah Miller of Whitefield, Maine, will be serving as one of the firemen on today’s excursion.
“It will be one of the (longest) steam trips in the Northeast in a quite a while, at least in the Northeast north of Steamtown (in Pennsylvania),” said Fanslau.
He explained that steam locomotives are fueled by burning combustible material — usually coal (as the 7470 uses), wood or oil — to produce steam in a boiler. The steam moves reciprocating pistons, which are mechanically connected to the locomotive's main wheels (drivers). Both fuel and water supplies are carried with the locomotive, either on the locomotive itself or in wagons (tenders) pulled behind.
A lifelong train enthusiast and father to three children who also love trains, Fanslau, 40, said it is a challenging but rewarding task to work on the engines that ruled the rails for a century before they were eclipsed by diesel and electric engines.
“I like the work because a steam locomotive involves a very basic technology, but it is also complicated at the same time — it’s about a lot of simple systems coming together to make it work,” said Fanslau.
He said a big part of it is being part mechanical engineer, part welder and part machinist. As he puts it, “the whole spectrum, from very fine work to just getting mean when doing rivets, giving it all you’ve got!"
Fanslau said he loves steam engines because "you can see everything that’s going on — unlike diesel, there are no parts behind a shield: You can see all the moving parts."
Some of the work involved heating sheets of steel to 1,800 degrees F., and then using wooden mallets to pound it out and fashion it into shape, just as it was done in the old days.
The engineering analysis on the boiler parts required involves “lots and lots of math," he said.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of independent parts on that boiler, so for every single one of them, you need to analyze it. By knowing the materials, you know how much stress is allowed to maintain a factor of safety,” said Fanslau.
He said because he and his crew have worked on No. 7470 in the past, they knew what to expect. He also knew to call retired Conway Scenic engineer/master mechanic Courtney Gregg for answers to questions about where a particular part was, and Gregg always came through.
He estimated the project involved “10,000 hours” of work.
Taking a broad overview, he noted, “It’s amazing that steam engines like 7470 are still around. Over the years, I have been fortunate to be around people here in Boothbay and there at the Conway Scenic like Courtney and at Edaville Railroad who would explain stuff to me.
"Looking at the restoration and Saturday’s excursion, I look at this all the way that David Swirk does — that we are the caretakers who are just passing it on so that maybe in 30 years, the kids who are riding the trains like I did as a kid will be taking care of these iron horses.”
Among the many railfans who are invited to ride the rails through Crawford Notch to Whitefield today is guest of honor Dwight A. Smith, co-founder of the scenic railroad in 1968 with the late Carroll P. Reed of Carroll Reed Ski Shops and Bill Levy of Yield House fame.
The railroad opened Aug. 4, 1974, with track going from North Conway to Conway. And serving as its only locomotive in that first season was none other than No. 7470, the steam relic from the glory days of railroading that Smith — a World War II naval veteran and career Boston & Maine employee — had acquired in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1968.
Smith, 94, of Kearsarge, said this week, "I like to tell people that it was built in 1921, and I was born in 1925, and both are still running strong!”
But he noted that was not always the case with No. 7470.
“When I went to Sarnia, I saw this big, rusty steam locomotive in the roundhouse. I asked the gentleman who owned it, ‘How much?’ When he told me, I bought it," Smith said.
"I went home and told my wife, ‘Guess what? I just bought a steam locomotive,’ to which she replied, ‘What, another HO scale brass one?’ and I said, ‘No — a 150-ton real one.’ And we remained married!” he marveled.
Originally built as Grand Trunk Railway No. 1795, Smith said it soon became Canadian National Railway No. 7470, Class 0-18-a.
For a number of its early years, it saw service as a yard switcher in Montreal and Toronto for the Canadian National Railway. It was then sold to a sugar refinery in Canada, which eventually sold it to the private collector from Michigan who ended up selling it to Smith.
When it went into service for the Conway Scenic, it was numbered No. 47. It was returned to its old number in 1989.
Pulled by a diesel engine, the locomotive was transported from Sarnia to the Rigby Railyard in South Portland, Maine in October 1968.
Smith said that when he bought the locomotive, it needed a lot of work, especially in making sure the boiler could withstand 200 pounds of steam.
The locomotive was once again towed by a freight train to the North Conway railyard in 1970.
“We didn’t steam it up and get it running until 1974,” Smith said, noting that he was often joined on work weekends by volunteer railfans.
Once the railroad boarded its first paying customers on Aug. 4, 1974, Smith said the volunteerism by his dictum became a thing of the past.
“When we ran that first revenue train,” said Smith, “it was a reward to all of us who had worked on it for the past six years and that we had finally gotten it running. Everyone had volunteered weekends to work on it. But after that first revenue run, everyone who had worked for me went on the payroll. No more freeloading — I paid them, and I stressed to them that it was not a hobby railroad, that it was a business, and with that, we did fine.”
Some railroad employees wanted to buy stock in the company, but all 300 shares were held by Smith, Reed and Levy. None was available. So, Smith said, he created Locomotive 15 Corp., which enabled employees to purchase shares.
That company’s purpose was to buy rolling stock, which was then leased to the railroad, thus giving employees a stake in the overall success of the tourist railroad venture.
In short order, a more efficient diesel locomotive was added to the fleet, Smith said.
“We found out that it was pretty expensive to run a steam locomotive, so in that first off season we bought diesel locomotive No. 15 to use in early spring and late fall because it can be too costly to fire up No. 7470 when it’s cold, and when there are fewer customers,” Smith explained.
Smith shared how Conway Scenic came to be.
For nearly 90 years, he said, the 1874-built, Victorian-styled Boston & Maine station in the center of North Conway Village had served as a landmark for train travelers. Passengers, mail, express and newspapers arrived and departed through the station. Snow trains began running in 1932 to the town that was home to the “birthplace of American skiing.” Countless skiers rode the snow trains as the sport of skiing grew with the development of ski lifts.
By the early 1950s, improved highways and America’s love affair with the automobile led to a decline in passenger service. Passenger service to Boston ended on Dec. 2, 1961, as a single B&M Buddliner headed south never to return. Freight customers continued to decline, too, and the last freight train departed on Oct. 30, 1972.
The station was boarded up and remained in general disrepair for several years after passenger service was terminated. Reed and Levy purchased the old B&M station in May 1965 and formed the North Conway Depot Co. They also bought the roundhouse, turntable, freight house and underlying land from a Boston realty company. B&M retained ownership of the main track and passing track running through the station property.
The story of the Conway Scenic starts in 1968, when Smith — then a 21-year veteran employee of the Boston & Maine — came to town on board a special Massachusetts Bay Rail Enthusiasts train in February of that year.
“I knew the station was no longer owned by the B&M," said Smith, "so as I wandered around the village in the shops and restaurants, I did some eavesdropping and found out it was owned by these two local businessmen, Carroll Reed and Bill Levy. I heard that there was talk of maybe turning the station into a restaurant or hotel.”
He went back home to Portland, and decided to give Reed and Levy a phone call. That led to a meeting in Reed’s office at Carroll Reed Ski Shops in North Conway with the two leading businessmen. In addition to Yield House, Levy had also made several improvements to the North Conway Golf Club, designing its clubhouse.
Like Reed, he had a vision for preserving North Conway.
“They had both arrived in North Conway penniless, but had founded thriving businesses,” said Smith. “They both wanted to give back to the town.”
Smith said Reed and Levy loved his idea for a tourist railroad.
“I told them of my vision for a tourist railroad. We had a handshake and an agreement within the hour, and that led to the incorporation of the Conway Scenic Railroad,” said Smith.
Along with many dedicated volunteers, the station was restored, rolling stock was acquired and restored, including the No. 7470 steam engine.
When the tourist railroad opened in 1974, it featured 5 1/2 miles of track between North Conway and Conway. It expanded in 1995 to include the Mountain Division line from North Conway to Bartlett and then on up through Crawford Notch to Fabyans, and now operates on a lengthened schedule from April through early January.
Smith served as general manager of the railroad until 1990, when Russ Seybold was hired, and sold his shares when he and fellow owners sold the railroad to Seybold and his wife Dot in 1999. The Seybolds sold the railroad to David and Rhonda Swirk in 2018. The Swirks have expanded the railroad's operations, making greater use of the Conway end of the line for special events, and by partnering to present other event with groups such as the White Mountain Regional Airport for today's "Trains, Planes and Automobiles."
Riding the high rails — always a treat, and a special one today for railfans, either boarding the 7470 or taking photographs of the mighty steam locomotive as she rolls through Crawford Notch.