A Mesa group that’s trying to preserve a 98-year-old locomotive is hoping its efforts will pick up steam this month by giving the public rare access to the train.
The train at Pioneer Park has stood behind an imposing iron fence since the mid-1990s, unreachable to a generation of kids who might otherwise play on the rusting locomotive.
But the Save the Train Committee will open the fence on Nov. 20 for its first fundraiser at the train, letting kids and adults get inside the locomotive’s cab.
The train evokes memories for many who grew up in Mesa, like Jim Ruiz, a city employee who is part of the Save the Train group. His family moved a few blocks from the train in 1971, when Ruiz was 12.
“There wasn’t a day when I wasn’t at Pioneer Park,” Ruiz said. “I still get a thrill when I go inside of it now, up in the cab, and remember all the good times.”
The train group aims to raise about $80,000 to repair its exterior, with a third of that already collected.
Also, the group would move the train from the playground at the back of the park to the southwest corner of the park, along Main Street.
The committee began raising funds in early 2008, after Mesa considered selling the train for scrap or sending it to a Chandler museum to avoid paying restoration costs estimated at $400,000.
Some members of the City Council at the time favored getting rid of the train because it ran in California and not Arizona, and because the fence prevented children from having any meaningful connection with it. But the council decided to preserve the train if private funds could be raised. The city also figured a less expensive and more modest restoration was appropriate.
Ruiz would like the train in place by 2012, which is the 100th birthday of the state and the train.
“We’d like to have the train at least in position where it could be unveiled as a work in progress for Arizona’s centennial celebration,” Ruiz said.
The Southern Pacific Railroad donated the decommissioned locomotive to Mesa in 1958. Mesa fenced it for safety and liability concerns in about 1995.
One of the train’s most passionate supporters never lived in Arizona, but saw it as a child because his father ran the locomotive between Roseville and Fresno, Calif. John Ingram now lives in Roy, Utah, and grew curious what became of the locomotive after looking at a photograph of his father standing in front of a train that bears the number 2355. Ingram keeps the photo of John Ivan Ingram in his home office, a reminder of a man who died at age 54 in 1962.
“I was just looking at it and I felt like I really had to do something, and I typed the engine number in the search engine of the computer,” Ingram said, adding he discovered an online photo of a train in Mesa with the same number. “I looked at that and said, ‘This couldn’t be the same one.’”
Ingram told his mother and brother about the train and that he wanted to see it. They said it would be too emotional for them, but Ingram visited two years ago. The city arranged for him to get behind the fence.
“It was a really good trip because I wanted a picture of me standing next to where my father stood, and that meant a lot to me,” Ingram said.
Ingram tentatively has plans to attend this month’s event.
Ruiz hopes the new home for the train can include signs that explain the history of the railroad’s importance to the West and of this locomotive. Baldwin built 10 copies of this model, and only one other example of this train in California is known to have survived.
The new location’s visibility should deter vandals and could mean a less imposing fence is needed, Ruiz said. The city will also consider how it could have more frequent access to the train as an exhibit.
Many people today are unaware of the train’s existence, said Mike Holste, Mesa’s recreation director. That wasn’t the case before the fence went up, he said.
“Everybody in Mesa climbed on it and either hit their head or fell off it at one time,” Holste said. “Right now, it’s unfortunate. All you can do is just look through the fence at it.”