BONSAL - Its hard to move a train without tracks, but it can be done.
Earlier this month, local preservationists brought an 85-year-old steam locomotive home to North Carolina. To pull it off, the nonprofit New Hope Valley Railway built short stretches of line, rolled No. 110 onto a truck in Stone Mountain, Ga., and shipped the 61-ton antique to New Hill.
That was the easy part. Now comes the repair job.
After decades of museum service, the tough old girl may chug again.
With steam locomotives, its always something. Thats why you got big tools, said Mike MacLean, 38, president of the ultra-hobbyists.
Behind him, men with chains and pipes worked at the jet-black engines underbelly, trying to couple it again to its tender.
The thing looks every part a classic train, with rows of rivets along its columnar body, domes and a smoke stack across its top, and muscular rods coupling its wheels to a web of machineryalong its sides.
Cast in 1927 by Vulcan Iron Works, the Yonah II hauled freight for 29 years on the short line serving Cliffside, a mill community in Rutherford County.
On a recent Saturday, a crowd of a few dozen welcomed the 10-wheeler to Bonsal rail yard, nine miles southwest of Apex. The rural crossroads serves as a hide-away where New Hope Valley Railway has assembled four miles of track and more than a dozen full-size train cars and engines since 1982.
More than an over-sized model set, the operation now draws hundreds of visitors for weekend rides on its restored trains. About 12,000 people come out each year, and they pay to ride the rails. (You can even drive a steam locomotive, but its not cheap about $250 an hour.)
With its addition of the 1927 locomotive, New Hope Valley Railway is kicking off a new era.Raising money
But current revenues arent enough to restore the 2-6-2 Prairie, which will replace a smaller engine as the groups steam workhorse.
To fund the restoration and facility improvements, the group soon will launch its first major fundraiser.
For a crew more accustomed to tinkering than publicizing, its new territory.
New Hope Valley Railway includes about 130 people across the country, from teen hostlers to retirees. Some like to play with trains; others have worked with them.
Each week, dozens of members from across the state come together to keep the local service running.
Ive met some monster machines, said Joe Mills, a heavy equipment operator with a thick grey beard and wrap-around sunglasses. His wife convinced him, after countless drives past the rail yard, to finally join the crew three years ago.
I remember the old line that used to run here, the Apex native recalled.
The Bonsal yard and the New Hope Valley line began a century back, construction on a 31-mile track from the New Hill area to Durham having finished in 1906, according to a historical documents.
The railway originally brought timber and passengers along New Hope Creek, stopping at villages like Seaforth and Beaver Creek. Eventually, the line ran southeast to the Duncan community near Fuquay-Varina, and north to the American Tobacco Company campus in Durham.
Today much of original railways path is under water, along with several of its stops, all flooded out by the creation of Jordan Lake in the 1970s.
As required by law, the federal government paid millions to run a new line east of the lake but it was only to last for a few years. The new connection brought equipment and supplies to the construction site of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant, then was sold off piecemeal between the early 1980s and 90s.
The East Carolina Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society was among the first to stake a claim, buying up the tracks and rail yard that today are a tourist attraction. Other sections of rail went to the Shearon Harris project, and to the American Tobacco Trail.
In its 30 years, the historic railroad group has added more than 20 cars and pullers to its collection, nearly filling up the yard.
The new locomotive is the groups oldest yet, and it promises to pull the men and women of the Bonsal railway even deeper into a project thats already beyond most train enthusiasts wildest dreams.
But Joe Mills wife, Vicki, isnt worried.
You know, these guys are putterers, she said. Theyll get it done.