City of Prineville Railway says goodbye to Mt. Emily Shay
For nearly 30 years, the City of Prineville Railway has maintained and showcased one of Oregon's treasured locomotive artifacts, the Mt. Emily Shay steam engine.
But in the past few years, due to a variety of circumstances, the engine has spent more time in storage than it has out in the public, prompting railway to consider a new home for the historical artifact.
"The steam engine, in the last four or five years, has been mothballed and nobody really gets to see it. It's just been parked in a shed," said Railway Operations Manager Matt Wiederholt. "It just doesn't do it justice just having it parked. It's a wonderful item, an historical artifact just not being utilized."
So, a couple years ago, when the railway's most recent operations agreement with Oregon Historical Society was set to expire, the two sides decided to find it a new and hopefully better home.
Wiederholt points out that the city railway has never owned the locomotive. The Oregon Historical Society owns it and back in the early 1990s, the state organization was in search of a new home for the steam engine. The local railway raised its hand, responding to a Request for Proposal.
"We were the caretakers of the Mt. Emily Shay and over the last 30 years, we operated it for the Oregon Historical Society here," he explained.
According to the historical society the Mt. Emily Shay was designed by Ephraim Shay and manufactured at the Lima Locomotive Works in Ohio in the 1920s. Shays are geared steam locomotives, specifically suited for mining and timber industries. While almost 3,000 Shays were manufactured, around 115 still exist and even fewer are still operational.
The Shay was originally purchased by the Hofus Steel & Equipment Company of Seattle, Washington, then sold to the Independence Logging Company of Independence, Washington. It was eventually sold to, and named after, the Mount Emily Lumber Company, located in the city of La Grande.
The Mt. Emily Shay was owned and operated by the company until it was retired in 1957 and donated to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It was transferred to the historical society in 1958.
The Mt. Emily Shay was later on long term loan to the state of West Virginia beginning in the 1970s. The borrower restored the engine to working order (twice - it was damaged once due to fire), and the locomotive was operated on the Cass Scenic Railroad.
When the city railway took over operation of the Shay in the 1990s, it was used to pull the Crooked River Dinner Train and for a variety of special excursions for school classes. The steam engine got significant public exposure each Fourth of July, when hundreds of people lined up to take train rides with the locomotive pulling a passenger car.
But, one by one, its uses diminished. Amid a recession, city officials discontinued the Crooked River Dinner Train and in the years that followed, the railway offered fewer and fewer excursions. And finally, converging circumstances put an end to the Fourth of July train rides. The COVID-19 pandemic initially prompted cancelation of the train rides and business growth left the railway without a viable place to park and board the train.
"We were in a position where financially it didn't make a whole lot of sense to keep it here," he said. "It was extremely expensive to operate. We couldn't figure out a good, sustainable plan for it."
Wiederholt stressed that the decision has caused no animosity between the railway and the historical society — they share a similar goal of getting the Shay the exposure they feel it deserves. Consequently, the historical society has issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) to find the steam engine a new home.
"The Oregon Historical Society (OHS) is soliciting proposals from parties interested in accepting permanent transfer and full ownership of the Mt. Emily Shay locomotive," the RFP states. It goes on to state preference for a home "in the state of Oregon that will continue to share the history of the locomotive, the timber industry and Oregon or the region with the public."
Nicole Yasuhara, the historical society's deputy museum director, said the RFP was issues on April 1 and that OHS received three submissions by the June 1 due date. The organization sent out further questions to those parties on July 15 and received responses within three days.
Yasuhara declined to reveal the specific organizations interested in the locomotive, but she noted that they are in either Oregon or the Pacific Northwest, they are nonprofits that can take ownership of the engine and they have a similar-minded mission to focus on the history of the region.
"The questions we asked were are you planning on using this, are you planning on displaying this, are you planning on interpreting this and what's your role as an historical museum," Yasuhara explained.
While OHS has owned the Emily Shay for the duration of the organization's agreement with the city railway, the museum is not suited for displaying, maintaining or storing the locomotive. Consequently, when the city railway chose not to renew its agreement, they opted to transfer ownership to an entity that could. A decision on which nonprofit will take ownership of the engine will be announced on Sept. 1.
Yasuhara went on to praise local railway leaders for their care and display of the locomotive for the past three decades.
"We really appreciated the city of Prineville and their stewardship of the Mt. Emily Shay."
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