Bainbridge Island gets into the railroad business

Can’t you hear that whistle blowing?

You soon will. Bainbridge Island will soon be on track to receive a steam-powered train, complete with tracks, depot and historic buildings.

Roy Murdock is the owner of a working replica of a steam-powered locomotive and he’s looking to donate his steam-spouting treasure to the Bainbridge park district with hopes that children and families visiting the parks can enjoy riding the rails.

Murdock’s Pacific locomotive is the spitting image of the genuine article, except about one-sixth the actual size. Operating around knee-level, the engine is fully functioning and allows for a conductor to sit on top and straddle the engine, which pulls the passenger cars behind it.

Port Orchard is home to one such railway and Murdock said another steamer group in Skykomish — the Great Northern &Cascade Railway — pulled in about $8,000 in donations over the course of two months.

For Bainbridge, Murdock is not only donating his replica iron horse but also a full set of tracks to go with it, plus cars for carrying pint-sized passengers. There’s also plans to build a train depot and a tiny town of 1940s era facades.

The park district has been examining the ideas of laying down tracks at Battle Point Park or the Sakai property, but Terry Lande, executive director of the parks district, said other considerations must be taken into account before officials start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Keep it in mind that we want to keep it somewhat centrally located where people can actually get to it, but we’re not causing other problems, like parking issues,” Lande said.

“Some parks weren’t meant to have that kind of attention,” he added.

Those concerns won’t throw the project off track. Organizers hope to have the train chugging along before Independence Day.

“Nothing great ever gets accomplished without a goal,” said Tom McCloskey, a Rotarian and organizer with the project.

“We just set a goal out there that we want to have it by the Fourth of July and that gives us something to work against,” McCloskey said.

The project is a collaboration between Murdock, the park district, Bainbridge Rotary, Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, Bainbridge High and the Seattle Railroad Historical Society.

In the past, Murdock has made sizable donations to Bainbridge High to help set up a composite engineering program. Now it seems that high schoolers may be poised to help in the construction of the railroad as a work-based learning opportunity.

Preston Michaels, a shop teacher at BHS, said students will be researching period-accurate buildings in order to construct a train station as well as some realistic facades which will be placed along the tracks. The historical museum will be assisting the students with their research.

Michaels said his students could begin their work as early as the end of next week.

Despite the enthusiasm of the members involved with the project, nothing is certain yet for where the train will be located. Park district officials must still vote on the final location for the railway, and spots are limited by the fact that the train cannot navigate grades steeper than 1 percent.

“We need flat,” Lande said.

As for who will be donning the conductor’s hat, talk has been made about forming a Bainbridge Live Steamers club which will train (no pun intended) volunteers how to safely operate the steam engine using easier-to-operate gas-powered engines.

“The train will have set hours where it’s open, and run by competent, trained, skilled folks,” Lande said.

“Safety will be the number one priority,” McCloskey added.

Organizers for the project said that locating the locomotive at one of the island’s parks will incur minimal, if any, cost to the district.

“This is going to cost the park district as close to zero as you can imagine,” McCloskey said.

And maintenance costs, McCloskey said, are about as much as maintaining a lawn mower.

Brand-new, the trains cost about $40,000. When asked why he would be willing to make such a costly donation to the park district, Murdock put it plainly: “Because I like to play and it’s too big for my yard.”