Putting in long hours on weekends, usually on Saturdays, a small, dedicated group of volunteers has been hammering away at a task in an industrial neighborhood of Hancock that, at times, seems daunting.
For the past year or so, the volunteers have been working to restore a decrepit, old steam-powered locomotive that hasn’t run in 65 years. And no matter how much progress they make — which currently is measured in how much rust they chip off or corroded bolts they loosen — they know they could have several years ahead of them to complete the job.
Richard Glueck, president of the group working to make the engine run again, said that on any summer weekend, as many as 18 people might show up to help out at the Down East Scenic Railroad service yard in Hancock’s Washington Junction neighborhood, just over the city line from Ellsworth, where the dismantled locomotive sits under a large, tarp-covered arch. Using their own tools or donated equipment, they don hard hats and work gloves and go about removing rust with pneumatic needle-scalers or taking wrenches to seemingly unmovable nuts as they try to determine what can be salvaged and what needs to be replaced.
But despite this occasional volunteer turnout — which includes academics, engineering students, and professional machinists — Glueck said that how soon Maine Central locomotive No. 470 might come back to life depends on one thing: money.
“Funding is the most critical thing,” Glueck said, adding that the group, New England Steam Corp., has raised $500,000 for the project since it purchased the exposed locomotive from the city of Waterville in 2015.
“I can tell you that if I had a check for a million dollars dropped on us today, the engine would be done in five years, guaranteed,” he said. But at the rate they have been raising money, he added, it likely will take another 10 to 15 years to finish.
The locomotive, originally built in 1924, is known among train enthusiasts in Maine for being the last steam-powered engine — which uses coal to boil large amounts of water and produce steam that drives the pistons — operated by Maine Central Railroad. (Modern locomotives tend to use diesel fuel or electricity for power.)
From 1954 — when it ceased running after making a final trip from Bangor to Portland — until 2016, the locomotive sat on display outside in Waterville, where it rusted and suffered occasional vandalism. New England Steam Corp. moved it three years ago to Hancock, where it now is kept out of the weather and under lock and key.
The group’s goal is not to just make the locomotive run again, but with the help of volunteers to promote historic and scientific education and to help boost the local tourist industry. The plan, once the locomotive runs again, is for Down East Scenic Railroad to lease No. 470 from New England Steam Corp. for use on its excursions through Ellsworth and Hancock and, eventually, to and from Green Lake in Dedham.
“It is the largest preserved steam locomotive in all of New England, so it is a real magnet for Maine,” Glueck said. “We feel that we will bring in at least another 10,000 visitors [to the area] annually. That’s the economic force behind restoring No. 470.”
For Roger Bennatti, a retired George Stevens Academy science teacher who lives in Orland, the effort will be worth it, even if it takes a decade to complete. Bennatti, who volunteers for Down East Scenic Railroad in the summer, said word will spread among train enthusiasts like him once the locomotive is running again.
“There’s a whole bunch of people who will drive hours and hours to ride on a particular locomotive,” Bennatti said. “It generates a huge amount of enthusiasm. I’m thrilled just to be the guy who goes around and oils something [on the train].”
Bennatti was among a handful of volunteers who showed up on a recent Saturday, despite a daylong downpour, to put in a few hours of work. The arching tarp overhead protected them from the falling rain, but the runoff seeped under the edges and pooled around their boots as they worked, their breath condensing in mist as they exhaled in the unheated space. Still, they traded smiles and stories — and shared a hot lunch — in between hammering and cranking away at the locomotive chassis.
“Today we’re trying to loosen up parts,” Glueck said. “We have to take the entire locomotive apart [and] check all the pieces for structural integrity.”
Leverett Fernald, a machinist with Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield who also serves as New England Steam Corp.’s vice president and chief mechanical officer, said that much of the engine looks salvageable, though it will have to replace parts in “critical” areas with new pieces of steel.
The locomotive’s tender car, which carries 9,200 gallons of water and 13 tons of coal, will largely have to be built anew, he said, though most of its undercarriage will be retained.
Fernald said that all volunteers are helpful, but said it is especially helpful to have younger people involved in the project. The University of Maine informally has assisted with some machining work, he said, and has produced volunteers such as mathematics professor Paul Van Steenberghe and graduate student Hanna Brooks — which, he said, should help to ensure that the knowledge gained in Maine from restoring the locomotive endures for a long time to come.
“We’re literally going to know every nut and bolt on this thing by the time we get through,” Fernald said. “We’re not just trying to preserve a machine. We’re trying to preserve the skills that go with it.”