New York Power Authority Donates Heavy-Duty Equipment from Its Blenheim-Gilboa Project for Restoring Old Steam Locomotive in Ulster County

Michael Saltzman

April 30, 2004


GILBOAWhen the New York Power Authority (NYPA) donated heavy-duty machine tools in April for restoration of a nearly century-old steam locomotive in Kingston, it shed light on the connection one of its senior mechanical engineers has had with the old engine for more than a quarter of a century.

Joe Michaels, who works at NYPA’s Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Project in Schoharie County, first became acquainted with Locomotive 23 in 1975 while working for the Bechtel Corp. at a power plant in northern Michigan. At the time, the engine, built in 1910 by the American Locomotive Co. to haul iron ore, was serving a 20-mile track near Lake Superior, and frequently carried outdoor enthusiasts drawn to the scenic beauty of the heavily wooded area.

“One day, people operating the train came over to the power plant looking for a mechanical engineer to get a read on the condition of its boiler before it underwent federal inspection,” Michaels recalled. “This was sort of a long shot on their part because railroad boilers are radically different, with the only commonality being that they both (for power plants and locomotives) burn fuel to make steam.”

So it was, indeed, fortunate for Locomotive 23’s operator—the Marquette Huron Mountain Railroad Co.—that Michaels, a train buff since the time he was 12, and graduate of the Polytechnic Institute of New York (then Brooklyn Polytechnic), happened to be at Presque Isle Power Plant that day to provide his take on the boiler.

Later during that period, the acquaintances he formed with the railroad people gave him an opportunity of living out a boyhood fantasy of shoveling coal in 23’s firebox, on a number of trips, while maintaining boiler water levels for the train’s engineer. He did this as a labor of love, without financial compensation, for the rare experience of working on a steam locomotive, a vestige of an earlier era that gave way to more efficient diesel-powered engines.

Over the next decade, Michaels’ career as a professional engineer in the electric power industry took him to other places, including Wyoming and faraway Paraguay. However, he never lost his enthusiasm for trains or forgot the excitement of roaring down the tracks in the cab of locomotive 23, whose “road number” may stem from the year 1923, when the engine is believed to have undergone extensive modifications to increase its hauling capacity.

In July 1986, Michaels, now a Power Authority employee working on its construction of a 345-kilovolt transmission line from Central New York to Dutchess County, spied a familiar site while passing a railroad yard in Kingston: it was old #23, inactive and boarded up.

A call to an area newspaper, the Kingston Freeman, led to a meeting with officials from Empire State Railway Museum—the new owner of the locomotive—and Catskill Mountain Railroad, which operates tracks in the area. He learned that the locomotive, which is about the size of two subway cars, hadn’t operated since 1981.

“The steam engine had pretty much been run into the ground, with equipment only patched together, instead of parts being replaced,” says Michaels, a long-time resident of the Town of Shandaken in Ulster county.

But as it did before, #23 renewed Michael’s interest in railroads, and he became involved with the railway museum, which is in the Town of Phoenicia, also Ulster county.

Over the next decade or so, the aging process on the locomotive continued to take its toll, until 1996 when Michaels and others from the museum realized if something wasn’t done soon to restore it, the old engine would be only a heap of rusting metal, past the point of no return.

But as word got around of the old engine’s likely fate, something extraordinary happened: people began donating and loaning machine tools and equipment, and their time and expertise, for bringing it back to life. Michaels describes the response as reminiscent of the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” when Kevin Costner played an Iowa farmer who is inspired by a mysterious voice to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field. “If you build it, he will come,” said the voice, foreshadowing the appearance of spirits from baseball’s past.

Pretty soon, Michaels and other volunteers had accumulated a wide array of equipment for #23’s refurbishing, including cutting torches, welding machines, riveting tools and a crane. A machine shop was started in a boxcar, with heavy machine tools literally shoehorned in. And a diesel generator, which had not run in 30 years, was resurrected to power the shop.

Volunteers included skilled craftsmen, as well as people with little or no experience in this kind of work. But those with limited backgrounds more than made up for it with their eagerness to learn new skills, such as boilermaking and rivetting, in order to make a contribution.

During this time, the Power Authority, too, supported the improvised effort by loaning tools and equipment from Blenheim-Gilboa, as the restoration slowly progressed in a manner likened to a house being built.

In April, the effort got a major boost when NYPA donated two heavy-duty pieces of equipment from the project’s machine shop—a horizontal milling machine, weighing approximately two tons, and a metal parts shaper, about three tons.

The Authority has been replacing machine tools for a major upgrade of B-G’s four pump turbines that is scheduled to begin in 2006 as part of a life extension and modernization program for the 1,040,000-kilowatt hydroelectric facility.

“Since we weren’t planning to use the equipment again, we were delighted to make the donation and help to restore this early 20th century steam engine,” said Steven DeCarlo, NYPA regional manager, Central New York. “The Power Authority considers it an honor to be able to contribute, even in a small way, to turning this vision into a reality. So even with Joe Michaels’ persuasive abilities, it didn’t take much to convince us to turn over this equipment.”

A NYPA crane lifted the equipment from the B-G powerhouse, before the machinery was loaded onto a 1967 Mack truck owned by Earl Pardini, who is overseeing Locomotive 23’s restoration. That seemed to fall in step with the vim and optimism required for reviving a classic engine that most people would consider well past its useful life. 

As things now stand, #23, which is located at a Kingston rail yard not far from where Michaels spotted it in 1986, is expected to be fully restored in a year or so. It would then be turned over to Catskill Mountain Railroad for eventual operation along a nearly 40-mile track between Kingston and the Delaware county line.

So the story of Locomotive 23 is an evolving one that speaks of the determination of a number of people. It wasn’t so long ago that their hope of reviving it may have been considered a pipe dream, but not anymore. Those involved with the effort are now glimpsing light at the end of the tunnel.