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Durango railroad revives 143-year-old locomotive

American Heritage Railways forges new path with restoration work
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad crews refurbished this 143-year-old locomotive for Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California. The D&SNG has found a niche for doing repair and rebuilds for other railroads. (Courtesy of D&SNG)

Locomotive 41, a popular tourist attraction at Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California, has undergone an extensive 20-month restoration in Durango and is now back in service at the theme park.

Restoration of the 143-year-old locomotive was carried out by American Heritage Railways, which owns the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. It was part of the railroad’s new effort to diversify its income by doing contract work on behalf of other railroads that may lack the tools, facilities or expertise necessary to maintain their own aging fleets.

“We are finding ourselves in a unique niche to be able to provide services to other railroads – as well as ourselves,” said Matt Cunningham, operations and special projects manager for the railroad. “It’s a pretty rewarding feeling.”

Locomotive 41 from Knott’s Berry Farm was dismantled and rebuilt at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge station in Durango. (Courtesy of D&SNG)

The railroad began doing contract work around 2018, on the heels of the 416 Fire and before the COVID-19 pandemic. Both events shut down passenger operations for several weeks, helping the D&SNG realize it must diversify its income, said Randy Babcock, chief mechanical officer for American Heritage Railways.

Contract work began with a few small projects. D&SNG has since taken on larger projects like rebuilding Locomotive 41, he said. American Heritage Railways now has two years’ worth of contract work lined up.

The added work and consistency of the work has allowed the company to increase wages, bring on additional full-time staff members and helped absorb ebbs and flows on the passenger side of the business, Babcock said.

The railroad could be doing even more contract work if it had more space available, he said. A new 10,000-square-foot building is under construction on the D&SNG’s property in Durango. The building, expected to open in April, will be used to maintain diesel equipment and for contract work.

D&SNG is also looking to take its tools and mechanical expertise on the road to meet clients on their turf versus requiring them to ship equipment to Durango, Babcock said.

In addition to needing more space, the D&SNG could use more mechanics. The railroad has been ferrying near-record numbers of passengers from Durango to Silverton post-pandemic, and the increased ridership has made it difficult to keep up with existing operations while increasing the amount of contract work.

“It’s been quite a balancing act, but it’s a really good problem to have,” Cunningham said. “We’re very lucky to be where we’re at and facing the issues of too much going on rather than too little.”

Contract work accounts for less than 10% of the railroad’s bottom line, he said, but it is helping diversify the business and allowing the company to increase wages.

“You’re never promised tomorrow,” he said. “Anything from gas prices to pandemics to anything that affects tourists from being able to reach the railroad could change that.”

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge crew members perform restoration work on Locomotive 41. (Courtesy of D&SNG)

The D&SNG has more active steam locomotives under one roof than anywhere else in the country, Cunningham said. Mechanical operations has always been a necessary expense, but now the department can generate its own revenue.

“We have now created a business that pays our mechanical payroll,” Babcock said. “That’s kind of how we look at it.”

Smaller railroads throughout the country can find mechanics capable of repairing or restoring locomotive equipment, Babcock said. But the D&SNG has found that other railroads prefer working with the D&SNG because it has greater expertise and there is a camaraderie or a partnership that forms between two railroads, he said.

The contract work has also allowed the D&SNG to play a greater role in the wider railroading community, said Jeff Johnson, vice president and general manager at the railroad.

Walter and Cordelia Knott before the “Gold Spike ceremony” at Knott’s Berry Farm in 1952. (Courtesy of Knott’s Berry Farm)
Locomotive 41 rides again

Babcock worked at Knott’s Berry Farm for six years before moving to Durango. It was through him that Knott’s Berry Farm reached out to D&SNG about repairing some passenger cars.

At the time, Locomotive 41 was completely disassembled and stored in a roundhouse.

The D&SNG provided Knott’s Berry Farm with a plan to rebuild the locomotive. Mechanics began restoration, but then COVID-19 hit, staffing changes occurred and they no longer had the ability or time to finish restoration, Babcock said.

“Basically, for the first time ever, they decided we don’t have the ability to do this internally – let’s send it out,” he said.

John Nielesky, director of ride maintenance at Knott’s Berry Farm, said employees were in disbelief at seeing the old locomotive loaded up and sent away for repairs.

Locomotive 41 from Knott’s Berry Farm was in a state of disrepair upon arriving in Durango. D&SNG crews worked for 20 months to restore the locomotive. (Courtesy of D&SNG)

“The commitment, passion and professionalism the D&SNG team demonstrated throughout this process was second to none,” he wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “It was especially impressive how well the newly refurbished Locomotive No. 41 ran on the first day when spent testing.”

The locomotive was built in 1881 for the Denver & Rio Grande Western. It is one of three surviving C-19 class locomotives. It was based out of Salida for most of its early years before being sold in 1916 to the Rio Grande Southern and numbered 41.

It operated between Durango and Ridgway for the rest of its time in Colorado. Walter Knott, who started Knotts Berry Farm, purchased the locomotive in 1951.

Locomotive 41 from Knott’s Berry Farm was dismantled and rebuilt at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge station in Durango. (Courtesy of D&SNG)

The locomotive stayed at Knott’s Berry Farm for nearly 70 years before being moved to Durango in 2020 to be rebuilt, Babcock said.

D&SNG crews worked on the boiler, tender and the frame itself. They replaced the smoke box, firebox door sheet, steam dome lid and steam delivery pipes. They installed a new tender cistern, new tires on the driving wheels, two new axles for the drive wheels and new wheels under the tender.

They also added features that had gone missing over the years, including adding wood into the cab and correcting the number board font.

“You always have to remember that you are working on something that carries some history to it, and respecting that and keeping that alive is always something that we take pride in or mesh in wherever we can,” Cunningham said. “ … A lot of visitors to Knott’s Berry Farm may never notice.”

In December, the locomotive was given a final test run through the Animas Valley, and two days later it was loaded onto a truck and driven back to Knott’s Berry Farm.

“It pretty much was still warm when we loaded it,” Babcock said.

For those in the industry, historic railroading is a passion they can’t easily part with, Cunningham said. They tend to care about the industry as a whole.

“To step outside of Durango & Silverton and American Heritage Railways and be able to help keep historic equipment alive across the country, regardless of who owns it, it’s still just as special,” Cunningham said. “ … It really is not only a win from the diversification of income and having some unique opportunities, but in general it just feels good.

“The craft is becoming more and more a thing of the past despite our efforts to keep it alive,” he added. “As time goes on, and we get further and further from the mainline steam days of the 1940s and ’50s, there’s less and less of that knowledge out there.”

Locomotive 41 was returned to Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California in December after undergoing a complete rebuild and restoration in Durango. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad crews spent 20 months refurbishing the 143-year-old locomotive. (Courtesy of D&SNG)

Babcock said railroaders at Knott’s Berry Farm were amazed to see the finished product.

“They couldn’t have been happier and more excited,” he said.

The D&SNG crews were excited to send it off and focus on their next project.

“As cool of a project as it was, it’s also one of those things (where) it’s a little bit like a house guest,” Babcock said. “You love them, but at some point, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, they’re gone. It’s gone. It’s finally done.’

“It was definitely the largest project in our contract world to date that we’ve done, and it taught us a lot about how to do these multiyear things,” he said.


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