A small group in the foothills of Mount Rainier has been tasked since the 1980s with running a tourist railroad there. It also has a larger goal of preserving some part of the logging era that helped found Washington state.
Now the engineers and history buffs have put their work and artifacts from the state’s industrial era on display as the beginnings of a museum they hope will attract visitors to their rail tracks.
“This is living history,” Stathi Pappas, the operation’s chief mechanical officer, said as an 1892 lathe behind him reshaped the wheel of one of the museum’s locomotives. “That’s what we’re here for, to show people what this past age was.”
The Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad now runs from its station in Elbe to the new museum in Mineral, where the group stores and revamps the locomotives.
The museum had its grand opening earlier this month. Before the railroad took passengers there, it went to a picnic area at Mineral Lake.
Tom Murray Jr., the main contributor to the new project, also helped create the tourist railroad. He hopes giving the train a more interesting destination will attract more visitors, making the railroad profitable while also keeping Washington’s logging history alive.
Information about that history became less accessible when the Camp 6 Logging Museum in Point Defiance Park closed in 2011. Murray, a former logger and part of his family’s Murray Pacific Co. logging business, hopes the new museum takes its place.
Bunk houses from the old Tacoma site were moved to Mineral and became the beginnings of the museum’s exhibits about the daily life of loggers, including some of Murray’s old clothes and equipment.
“It was more than a bunch of guys going to chop trees in the woods,” Pappas said. “The whole story is fascinating.”
Future exhibits will describe the role of women in the industry and the dynamics of logging camps. Brian Wise, the railroad’s general manager, said he and Pappas have come up with concepts for the final displays and intend to hire a professional exhibit planner to bring the ideas to fruition.
There’s no shortage of photos and artifacts to tell the story of Washington’s forest industries, but there was no place to put them before the museum opened, Wise said.
Former loggers and their families, the Tacoma Public Library and the University of Washington have collections that could be displayed at the site as it’s developed, he said.
In one of the cabins, Green River Community College has an interpretive center that examines the relationship between the environment and logging.
The museum is scheduled to be finished in 2015, with additions between now and then of a saw mill and a miniature steam engine to ride.
Currently, the museum is known as the Western Forest Industries Museum, though Murray said that name is still being discussed.
In addition to private funding such as Murray’s, the Legislature allocated $385,000 to the museum as part of its capital budget this year. Murray said he’s also been actively seeking grant funding for the project.
As the museum sits now, the Camp 6 buildings line a picnic area outside the workshop where the experts tend to the engines. Visitors meandering around the grounds before the train returns to Elbe can see the shop and talk to Pappas and Wise or others there about what they’re working on.
Then there are the trains themselves.
About nine logging steam engines are housed on the grounds, with signs explaining their history and basic facts. Most are from the 1920s. Not many are used on the tracks any more, and some come out only for special occasions.
Murray’s most recent pride and joy is one of the first logging steam engines used in the state.
Now housed at the museum, the train was built in 1885 and ran in the Shelton area. It was brought to the museum and restored after being displayed for years outside the Outlet Collection in Auburn, formerly the Auburn Supermall.
It’s been a hit with kids who visit the museum, Wise said. The engine is by far the site’s smallest train, and visitors are allowed to climb inside the stationary locomotive to play with the controls.
Another novelty at the museum is the 90-ton Heisler geared locomotive, West Fork Logging Co. No. 91, which was the largest model built by the company.
Geared locomotives fared best on rough, steep terrain and are of particular interest to some European tourists who have made the trip to the museum specifically to see that type of train. They weren’t used much outside of the United States, Wise said.
Then there’s the 182,000-pound Willamette geared locomotive, used by Rayonier Inc. in 1929. It was the last one of its kind built; the company stopped making trains with the onset of the Great Depression.
The crew in Mineral is constantly on the lookout for more trains from the era to display at the new site.
“We have the most complete collection of logging steam locomotives in the world,” Wise said.
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268