By Jim Bryant
Standing in the cramped cab, surrounded by a variety of gauges, levers, throttles and a huge, hot boiler, the engineer pulled hard on one of many throttles and, with two toots of the whistle, a white cloud of steam was sent skyward and the 80-ton black mechanical beast lurched forward.
As the train rumbled around him, and adjusting the throttle, Craig Cootsona, a 13-year volunteer and engineer for the past six years with Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad (MRSR) in Elbe, sent the 1929 class Mikado-type rod locomotive on its way. Built by the American Locomotive Co. in Schenectady, N.Y., and one of three steam engines among five locomotives currently operated by the railroad, locomotive #17 recently underwent a federally mandated complete overhaul and is once again on the tracks.
The fireman, Jason Hill, who is also an engineer, regulates boiler pressure to make steam by turing a valve to add some of the 1,200 gallons of recycled motor oil to heat 2,500 gallons of water stored in the saddle tank.
It was the first weekend for MRSR’s Santa Express, which will make three daily runs starting at 10 a.m., 12:45 and 3 p.m. ever Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 22.
One word of advice: These trips are very popular, so be sure to book and pay online in advance. Also, the train doesn’t wait on anyone, so plan on arriving at the depot at least half an hour early.
Besides the Santa Express, MRSR also offers seasonal excursions featuring many special events such as Bunny Express, Mother’s Day Brunch, Father’s Day BBQ, Civil War Reenactment, Summer BBQ’s, Rail to Ales, Wine Tasting Train, and the Pumpkin Express.
MRSR only has four-full time employees, while rest of the staff is made up of volunteers who are trained as brakemen, conductors, firemen and engineers. All of the engineers have worked their way up the ladder. Volunteers perform the bulk of the work. After the 2006 Nisqually washout, volunteers came to MRSR’s rescue and replaced much of the original rails that were laid in1905.
Slowly gaining speed, the Santa Express passed the flashing lights of a railroad crossing and departed from Elbe. Passengers, both young and old, sat bundled on iron and wooden benches in their warm clothes and took pictures of the departure with cameras and cell phones.
Inside, while Chris Holst held his nine-month-old son, Wesley, his wife, Kim, brushed 4-year-old Penni’s hair as Amelia, 6, looked out the window of one of the green railcars that was built in 1929 and once made the daily run from San Francisco to Los Angeles at 80 miles an hour and stopped at 70 to 80 train depots along the way,
“This is our third Santa Train Express”, Chris said, “Being able to see Santa on the Santa Express is a big favorite for children riding the train.”
As the train, smoothly rocking port to starboard, rolled down the tracks, conductor Zeb Darrah, announced on the intercom safety procedures on how to move between the cars on the way to see Santa. He and student instructor David Wilhite would come get the children and their parents to see Santa.
“We don’t want a long line, so we’ll get a few families at time. Everyone who wants to see Santa will get a chance,” Darrah said.
Inside the Santa car, which also houses the concessions, Santa and his helper, Mary Decker, readied the area for the waiting children.
Decker, a four-year veteran who also is the manager and decorator explained how they prepare for the event.
“Four weeks before the first run, we decorate the Santa car and other two cars,” she said. “The decorations are changed every year so that the cars don’t look the same from year to year. That way, it makes it more interesting to our returning regulars.”
Santa seated himself on his red velvet chair as the first children started to arrived. At a table where Decker sat, each child had to write their names on the naughty or nice lists. One by one, each child got a chance to sit on Santa’s lap to tell him what they wanted for Christmas. One child, 11-year-old Zoe McPherson, asked for a Kindle, and another, 4-year-old Tommy McClelland, wanted a steam train set he saw in the depot’s gift shop.
Santa, digging through his red bag of gifts, presented each child with a small present and a candy cane. After talking with 6-year-old Solome McPherson, he once again dug through his bag, searching for a special gift. After handing her a small, white stuffed bear, he received a big hug and, with a twinkle in his eye, he looked up and said, “It’s moments like this that makes these train rides so special.”