1954 - At 90 tons, Number 7 is a large 1929 Baldwin built saddle tank rod engine (2-8-2ST). It is a very powerful locomotive capable of pulling 40 loaded log cars, more commonly called skeleton cars. Working almost exclusively on the mainline, Number 7 normally made two and sometimes three runs from Camp B down to the beach at Camp A, on MacMillan Bloedel's Franklin River Division at Alberni Inlet.
On 18 Nov 1954 dawn broke rather ominously and the morning light had to be coaxed out of the driving rain and drifting fog. The West Coast of Vancouver Island had been repeatedly lashed with violent winter storms that November.
Bob Walker, a senior mainline engineer, was slated to take over the controls of Number 7 that day. Inside the cab Bob and his fireman, Stan Malachowski, were busy steaming up the locomotive. It was warm and dry in the cab but both Bob and Stan knew they had to complete one unpleasant task before they could finally leave. Donning coats, they jumped out of the cab into the driving rain and greased, oiled, and inspected the running gear of the locomotive.
On that miserable morning, fate took a twist. Running trade seniority surfaced, sealing the destiny of an unsuspecting crew. The Number 7 was normally operated by very experienced and usually senior engineers. It hauled the loaded skeleton cars parked on the mainline into camp, reassembled the cars into a much larger train, and hauled them down to the log dump at Camp A. Being promoted to a mainline locomotive engineer was the ultimate engineer's job and the culmination of many years of experience.
Another train engineer, Ed Crosby, noticed Bob and Stan working on Number 7. Ed had worked for years on geared Shay locomotives, hauling and switching log cars from the woods down to the mainline. Ed had a lot of seniority running locomotives but had never worked on the mainline. Flexing his seniority muscles, he demanded to run Number 7. With grave misgivings, Ed was granted his request, and within minutes was in the cab of the locomotive.
Before leaving Camp B, Einar Ericksen, the head brakeman and Alex Bregin, the second brakeman, walked to the back of the train and checked all the loaded skeleton cars. A mandatory brake test was performed on the train before it moved. After some last-minute instructions, Einar walked to the front of the train and climbed into the cab. Alex quickly scrambled into the caboose at the back of the train. Glad to get out of the rain, Alex built a fire in the stove, and settled down to what he thought would be an interesting but uneventful ride.
The crew made a quick call to dispatch, informing him they were on their way. Dispatch reminded them that all the bridges had been inspected the day before but to still proceed with caution. Ed Crosby received the all-clear from his head brakeman and checked to see if his fireman was ready. In a cloud of steam and a toot on the whistle, Ed released the air on the brakes and reached for the throttle. Slowly the heavy train eased down the mainline, three million pounds of logs, steam, and steel, heading for tragedy.
Getting used to the motion of the locomotive, Ed carefully opened up the throttle. All three men in the cab scrutinized the rail grade in front of them. Already the windows in the cab were fogged up. It was fourteen miles down to Camp A and they had sixteen bridges to cross. It was going to be a slow journey, especially in this miserable weather. Highballing it was out of the question.
The crew marvelled at the hillsides turned white with saturated water. Torrents boiled and cascaded down the steep slopes on their short journey to the ocean.
Not far out of camp, the grade increased to a steeper 1 to 1 1/2 percent downgrade most of the way to Camp A. Ed was busy in the cab, constantly adjusting the throttle and the brakes. The fireman worked at keeping the boiler pressure up. The head brakeman acted as another set of valuable eyes in the cab. Not only was he looking forward but he diligently watched the loaded skeleton cars trailing behind the locomotive.
A mile out of camp, and with only one more bridge to cross, disaster struck. To the untrained eye the bridge over the Franklin River appeared intact but it had taken a severe pounding. Normally mounted twenty feet above the river, the bridge had only four feet of clearance. The raging torrent passing beneath the bridge undermined a supporting bent. The bent tore away from the bridge and smashed into two more bents, ripping them out. The bridge was severely weakened.
Number 7 didn't have a chance. It steamed onto the bridge at about eight miles per hour. Thirty feet out on the bridge the locomotive sagged backwards. It plunged into the tormented river, dragging a skeleton car with it. Franklin River swallowed the locomotive. It completely disappeared from sight! In a pile of twisted timbers and hissing steam, Number 7 rolled over on its side on the bottom of the river. The locomotive was now a steel coffin.
In the time it took to extinguish the flame in the boiler, the flame in two men also died. Ed Crosby, the engineer on his first mainline locomotive and Einar Ericksen, head brakeman, died in the cab. Stan Malachowski, the fireman, narrowly escaped. Surfacing 1/4 mile downstream, paralyzing fear almost sealed his fate. He didn't know how to swim! Miraculously he was swept close to shore. Exhausted, he dragged himself ashore and collapsed. Alex Bregin, in the caboose, was totally unaware of the catastrophe at the bridge.
It was weeks before a skyline was rigged and Number 7 dragged out of the river. It had sustained surprisingly little damage and was repaired, living to steam for almost another twenty years in company service before restoration by the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society of Port Alberni.
The Number 7 was restored after 3,700 hours of volunteer work, covering a period of nearly two years. For more information contact the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society at The Station, 3100 Kingsway Avenue, Port Alberni, B.C. V9Y 3B1.
Kevin Hunter - "Riding on Fate" - December 1997 - Forest History Association of British Columbia - Victoria, British Columbia. (Abridged)
Alberni Pacific Railway Today
This just may be your final opportunity to see one of the last operating steam logging locomotives in Canada, and as far as I'm aware, the only Canadian rod engine once used in logging service still in operation. The Alberni Pacific utilizes a portion of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway (The E&N was once a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway.) from Port Alberni for approximately 8 miles before branching off near Smith Road on a short private spur to reach the McLean Mill.
Port Alberni is about an hour and a half drive along Highway 4 west of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The highway route is quite scenic. Passing Cameron Lake E&N wood trestles are visible across the lake. Cathedral Grove, which contains very large old-growth Douglas Fir trees, is worth a stop along the twisting highway over the Alberni summit. From the grove it is a short distance to the long descent into Port Alberni. The old E&N station at Port Alberni, built in 1912, is located at Argyle and Kingsway streets near the waterfront and is not difficult to find. Alberni Pacific Railway trains depart northbound from this station for McLean's Mill which is the only commercial steam-operated sawmill in Canada, a registered National Historic Site.
The most visible, and interesting, piece of equipment owned by the Alberni Pacific Railway is steam locomotive number 7. Number 7 is a 90 ton 2-8-2ST. This saddle tank locomotive was constructed in May 1929 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. The engine has had a number of owners over the years including in 1941 - Campbell River Timber, 1953 - Alberni Pacific Lumber, 1962 - Comox Logging & Railway, 1973 - MacMillan Bloedel, and in 1991 the Government of British Columbia. The engine is one of several pieces restored by the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society at Port Alberni.
On any particular day the locomotive can easily handle four passenger coaches and the water car. Two coaches are of the open-air design and two are enclosed. These cars were re-manufactured by the society from retired Canadian National steel transfer cabooses originally constructed in CN's Pointe Ste. Charles Shops at Montreal. Seating appears to be suspiciously like that used by Victoria's BC Transit busses. All coaches are painted forest green with deluxe gold lettering and black roofs. Safety appliances are yellow. The enclosed cars are named Richard H. Grandy and Edward H. Sharpe while the open cars are W. (Bill) McNichol and K.D. (Doug) Wilson.
Other rolling stock includes a two-truck Lima Shay currently undergoing restoration, a General Electric 45 ton of 300 horsepower, and a 1,600 horsepower chop-nosed Alco RS-2. You can learn more at their web site.
During the summer of 2014 trains operate four days a week from Thursday to Sunday. There are two round trips on Thursday, and Saturday departing from Port Alberni station. The journey to the McLean Mill in the forest northwest of Port Alberni takes thirty-five minutes. A return journey plus admission price to the mill is $32.95 but there are different options available. Check with their web site for exact pricing information.
Photographing the train en route is difficult due to the surrounding forest. As the train departs Port Alberni station northbound it travels on level E&N trackage in the open next to various Western Forest Products warehouses and the Catalyst Paper mill. The tracks cross Third Avenue on an ascending grade to disappear into the bush popping into sight briefly at the Roger Street grade crossing. The E&N girder bridge over Kitsuksis Creek may be accessed easily with a short walk from a nearby residential street. Between Kitsuksis Creek and McLean Mill there are 3 grade crossings at Compton Road, Kitsuksis Road, and Kellow Road. The train travels slowly but it's not possible to drive between these crossing to catch multiple photos as the train progresses. The tracks are mostly inaccessible in the forest.
To drive to McLean's Mill take Beaver Creek Road northwest from Highway Four 5.5 kilometres to Smith Road and turn northwest (right). About two kilometers along Smith Road there is a grade crossing of the E&N. Look to the southeast (right) along the E&N track and you will see the spur switch that leads to McLean's Mill. The train diverges from the E&N taking this spur to terminate at a run-around track after unloading passengers at the Mill's wooden platform.
After arrival and passenger discharge, a mixture of diesel fuel and bunker C is pumped from a tank car into number 7. The engine then runs-around its cars, couples on, then drags them back to the wooden platform. The fire is shutdown in Number 7 which awaits the departure back to Port Alberni.