03/29/13 11:00am
03/29/2013 11:00 AM

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Don Fisher, president of the Railroad Museum of Long Island, with what’s left of the historic Engine 39 in Riverhead.

After sitting in Riverhead for 33 years, waiting to be restored, Engine 39, a steam engine built in 1929 and operated by the Long Island Rail Road through 1955, may be headed for Pennsylvania.

The Railroad Museum of Long Island has signed a contract with the Strasburg Rail Road Company in Ronks, Pa., to essentially split the cost of restoring the steam engine. Strasburg would do the work within three years of receiving the money and the restored train would remain with Strasburg, where it would operate on the company’s property for 44 years.

The deal was bittersweet, according to museum president Don Fisher of Southold.

Train enthusiasts brought Engine 39 to Railroad Avenue in Riverhead on a flatbed truck in 1980, with the goal of restoring it to operating condition and then running tourist trips between the railroad museum’s two locations in Riverhead and Greenport.

But the group and its predecessors never had enough money to finish the job, even after getting an $800,000 grant in 1996. The engine’s boiler and firebox are already in Strasburg, where they were being repaired until the money ran out. Only the bottom part of Engine 39, the wheel assembly, is currently in Riverhead.

“It is a bittersweet thing, because they were people who were hoping to see it running here, but the challenges on Long Island were great,” Mr. Fisher said. “We don’t have a place to get water here, there’s coaling facilities, the museum doesn’t own a service facility, we’re more than 100 miles from the nearest class-one railroad [Amtrak] and there are no more steam-qualified skilled mechanics to keep it running. The challenges against us running it here on the North Fork as a regular service have grown to the point of being monumental.”

The contract with Strasburg, which was signed March 14 after more than five months of negotiation, call for the museum to raise $900,000 in 2013 and transport the locomotive to the Strasburg property. Strasburg, in turn, will contribute about $1.1 million toward the project, Mr. Fisher said.

Once the $900,000 from the railroad museum is raised, Strasburg will complete restoration of the engine in three years and will then operate the locomotive on its property for a period of 44 years, according to the agreement.

While the Railroad Museum of Long Island has 15 years to come up with the $900,000, the contract calls for that amount to increase by 3.5 percent per year, so it’s imperative to raise the money quickly, said Mr. Fisher.

Museum officials originally planned to initiate a fundraising campaign for the entire $2 million. The new deal cuts that number in half, Mr. Fisher said.

The group plans to begin a $1 million fundraising campaign targeting foundations, railroad preservationists and individuals, he said.

“If we can get a million people to give a dollar, that’s a million dollars,” Mr. Fisher said.

Strasburg operates a steam locomotive repair and restoration facility on its property and runs a four-mile “heritage” railroad with five locomotives even older than Engine 39.

The oldest was built in 1906 and the newest in 1926, according to Linn Moedinger, president of Strasburg Railroad.

The Strasburg Railroad is the oldest railroad in the country that’s still operating under its original charter, although it operates mostly within its own property and not on public railroad tracks like Amtrak, Mr. Moedinger said. The trains run throughout the Pennsylvania Dutch Country in Lancaster County, southwest of Philadelphia, he said.

“It’s a shame that it’s been sitting for so long, it’s a nice engine and it will fit in nice right here,” Mr. Moedinger said. “Strasburg presents the best shot for the most number of people seeing it on a regular basis.”

It is very difficult to get permission to run a steam locomotive on tracks used by public railroads, he added.

The last time Strasburg ran on public rails was in 1998 — and that was for the purposes of filming, he said.

Mr. Fisher said the local railroad museum never had a guarantee that the LIRR would allow Engine 39 to run on its tracks.

tgannon@timesreview.com

08/25/12 7:00pm
08/25/2012 7:00 PM
/ 12

The 13th annual Riverhead Railroad Festival ‘Family Fun Days’ was held on museum grounds at Griffing Avenue across from Riverhead’s LIRR Station Saturday.

Its features include a historic Lionel Visitors’ Center train layout, which is 14 feet by 40 feet. It was donated by Lionel Corp. to the Railroad Museum of Long Island last year.

Other features include a 1964-65 World Fair’s miniature train, the 1923 H.K. Porter steam engine, a 1963 ex-LIRR Bay Window Caboose No. C-68, a garden railway, gas engines owned by the Long Island Antique Power Association’s members and a locomotive simulator donated by the LIRR, which was used to train engineers.

The festival continues Sunday.

The Railroad Museum of Long Island was established in 1990 to preserve the history and artifacts of the railroads and its effect on the growth of Long Island.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Engineer (museum volunteer) Don Rollik, behind the wheel of the LIRR miniature1964-65 World’s Fair train, giving rides around the property of the Railroad Museum of Long Island in Riverhead Saturday afternoon.

06/30/12 7:00pm
06/30/2012 7:00 PM

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Don Fisher, president of the Railroad Museum of Long Island, stands by what’s left of the historic Engine 39. The boiler is still in Pennsylvania where it being repaired until the nonprofit museum ran out of money.

Back in the late 1970s, a group of railroad enthusiasts began the dream of bringing an old steam locomotive from Stony Brook to Riverhead so they could restore it, and even use it to run tourist trips between Riverhead and Greenport.

Fast-forward to 2012: The restoration of Engine 39, which was build in 1929, still is not complete and a lot more money is needed before the long-held dream ever becomes a reality.

The Railroad Museum of Long Island, which took over the Engine 39 preservation efforts from the Engine 39 Restoration Committee in the early 1990s, received an $800,000 grant for the work in 1996.

But that money was all spent by December 2009 and the group stopped work on the engine, leaving parts of it — including the boiler and firebox — in a restoration shop in Strasburg, Pa., where they remain. Other portions of the locomotive, including the cab and the wheels, are in Riverhead.

“We’re not giving up,” said museum president Don Fisher.

The downturn in the economy has made it difficult to get grants or donations for the job, and he estimates that completing the restoration will require an additional $2 million.

So instead of seeking more government grants, the museum, which has locations in Riverhead and Greenport, plans to go national with its campaign to restore Engine 39, he said.

And it’s going to happen next year.

“Beginning in 2013, we’re starting a nationwide, grass-roots donations campaign to raise the $2 million,” he said. “This is a paradigm shift for the museum. This is a complete turn away from government grants or entitlements. We’re not going to go to the government anymore, because we can’t. The taxpayers, I don’t believe, support preservation and history like they used to. These are tough times. So we’re going to turn to a nationwide campaign.”

The first step for the group is to obtain lists of as many railroad enthusiasts and history buffs as possible, and then try to solicit donations from them, Mr. Fisher said.

“If we can get 2 million people across the United States to send in one dollar, we can get this job done,” he said. “We can get the restoration completed — and without government grants.

“This is not limited to Long Island,” he added. “This has interest to a much wider industrial history group.”

Engine 39 is one of only three locomotives of its type remaining in the U.S., according to Mr. Fisher. During its heyday, it could reach great speeds quickly, travel at more than 80 mph and also stop quickly.

Another steam engine, featured with Engine 39 in the Long Island Rail Road’s 1955 “End of Steam” ceremony in Hicksville, is now at the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum. The third, a diesel locomotive known as Engine 1556, is also at the Railroad Museum of Long Island’s museum and yard at Griffing and Railroad avenues in Riverhead.

There are a number of other old trains and train cars the group has restored, or is working on, as well as a gift shop, an historic Lionel train layout and a working miniature train from the 1964 World’s Fair.

The long range goal for Engine 39, “if we can get $2 million,” Mr. Fisher said, is still to run dinner trains between Riverhead and Greenport and vineyard excursions on the weekends.

He’s hopeful that going nationwide will be the answer.

“If we can’t get the money that way, honestly, I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” Mr. Fisher said. “But we’re not giving up. We’re chartered by the State Education Department as stewards of this equipment for everybody in New York.

tgannon@timesreview.com