Twelve years after local preservationist and businessman John Chilson hauled the rusting 1924 Shay locomotive off the Longview Library lawn, he believes he has found the perfect place to display the 62-ton relic of logging history.
Last week, Chilson signed an earnest agreement to buy a downtown parking lot in the 1200 block of Commerce Avenue for $140,000 from Leo Kesler, former owner of Kesler's Bar and Grill. With the Longview City Council's permission, Chilson would transform the 9,600-square-foot lot between Stylemasters College of Hair Design and Guse's Gourmet Coffee into a "pocket park" with a grassy plaza, seating, a clock tower and a secure shelter for the 48-foot-long steam locomotive.
Chilson envisions the locomotive housed in all-glass enclosure with log supports. It could be opened for tours and have the complete Shay assembly plans on display.
The brick clock tower would be a 36-foot-high replica of the 80-foot clock tower at the Longview, Portland and Northern Railway station that city founder R.A. Long built in 1925 at Broadway and Seventh Avenue. The tower was torn down in 1963, 30 years after flooding destroyed the train tracks that carried passenger trains into Longview. Chilson has the tower's four original 8-foot clock faces and interior Seth Thomas driving mechanism in storage.
Even if the City Council decides it doesn't want the Shay in that spot, Chilson says he'll probably improve the empty lot. A plaza would enable the Chilsons to add side entrances to their Stylemasters beauty school. And it would add value to the upstairs apartments they own across the street that now overlook the fenced-in parking lot, said Chilson, who will pitch his proposal to the council after the sale closes in January or February.
City Manager Bob Gregory doesn't see any red flags with Chilson's plan.
"I think it's a great idea. ... I think it's just awesome," he said Thursday.
Past City Councils were supportive of Chilson's efforts to restore the Shay for the community's enjoyment, and the static locomotive display would be a draw for downtown, he said. The plaza is just the sort of gathering place other successful downtowns have, Gregory said.
Also, the proposed project is the right price for the city - that is, free. Chilson, 68, and his wife, Mary, are paying for the lot themselves and could use their 501(c)3 organization, the Longview Public Service Group, as a vehicle for funneling grants and money into the public amenities. The couple owns a construction company, so the biggest expense will be the cost of materials, John Chilson said. Until local architect Craig Collins is finished with the plaza design, he won't have a cost estimate, but Chilson said it easily would be under $1 million. He would continue to own and maintain the park.
"It's a perfect example of how these things get done in the community," Gregory said.
A tribute to logging
Manufactured through World War II, Shay locomotives pulled log trains piled with timber from the woods to the mills. They had the special gearing and power needed to handle heavy loads and steep grades.
Longview's Shay locomotive spent its career working for a logging company in Tolt, Wash., and then for a company in Vaughn, Ore. Long-Bell Lumber Co. bought the Vaughn company in 1945 and presented the city of Longview with the locomotive in 1956 to display as a tribute to logging. The city placed it next to the Longview Library. Four years later, the city, worried about liability, put up a chain-link fence around the locomotive to keep people from climbing on it.
Periodically, concern about the Shay's rusting state led to restoration efforts: Jaycees scraped off rust, firefighters hosed off moss and Lions applied coats of paint.
In July 1996, the City Council gave John Chilson the nod to dismantle and rebuild the locomotive.
Chilson has a track record in restoring old things. He bought the old Columbia River Mercantile building from The Bon Marche when it moved to the Three Rivers Mall in the 1980s. He successfully restored it, turning it into a series of shops and boutiques. He purchased and restored the Long-Bell 1924 mill steam whistle and installed it on Commerce Avenue.
"I'm a person who likes to see things set right," Chilson explained last week. "I'm not really a train buff, but if something is historic and being demolished, I like to correct that."
The Shay was moved off the Longview Library property in March 1998 to the Port of Longview atop a trailer. At the port, a crew disassembled Lima Locomotive Works Engine 3249 part by part. The 700 pieces were tagged, labeled and photographed. Wayron Inc. gave Chilson a deal on sandblasting and cleaning the parts. Cloverdale Paint donated $10,000 in painting services. Valley Rental, along with King Crane, donated crane service. Cowlitz Clean Sweep removed asbestos without charge.
Chilson initially planned to have the Shay back on track, fired up and chugging, in time for Longview's 75th anniversary celebration Feb. 9, 1999.
"That was an overstatement, wasn't it?" Chilson said Friday with a laugh.
The goal of running the Shay on a railroad track had to be scrapped. Federal pollution control regulations and safety requirements are so strict that few steam engines are certified for operation anymore, he said. Also, getting insurance would be almost impossible, as would getting permission from Weyerhaeuser Co. or BNSF Railway Co run it on their lines, he said.
"There's just no way we're going to go through those federal regulations you have to do," Chilson said. "It really got complicated."
Finding a safe place for the Shay
Chilson finished the locomotive's restoration in 2005 but didn't have a practical place to reassemble and display it. He explored several options, including Lake Sacajawea and various downtown buildings, but nothing panned out.
The main concern was finding a place safe from vandals, thieves and the weather, said Chilson, who spent large amounts of time and money tracking down, buying or recasting pieces of the Shay that had been stolen or damaged beyond repair in the 42 years it sat on the library grounds.
John Brickey, the city's community development director, remembers visiting the Shay at the library.
"The kids at school were trying to find pieces that would come off and take them as souvenirs," he said.
The parts are highly sought after by collectors. The locomotives are even more vulnerable because the locations of all remaining Shays in the United States have been published in a book, which has "really haunted me," Chilson said. He managed to find the Longview locomotive's stolen name plate in Gary, Ind., but when the seller wanted $1,000 for it, Chilson said he'd just cast a new one. He did shell out $1,000 apiece for two vintage headlamps, however.
Chilson and the Longview Public Service Group poured about $100,000 in cash and donated services into the locomotive's restoration.
If the City Council gives him the green light, he'd start building the plaza next year and reassemble the Shay onsite in 2012.
"I'm not going to live forever, and I'm probably one of the only ones who knows how to put it back together," he said.