The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading


© AUGUST 12, 2006 

©Discover Live Steam. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.

 | Read other articles Send in an article |


The Return of the Shay

Written by Jim O'Connor and Ted Rita


The Shay (number 7) sustained substantial damage in a 1985 roundhouse fire.  The tender's tank had been full and the water line is clearly visible where it kept some of the paint from peeling off.
LaPorte County Historical Steam Society Archives photo   [click image to enlarge]

I t looked like the end of the line for Hesston's narrow gauge Shay #7 when it was caught in a major roundhouse fire on May 26, 1985. What started that fateful fire (perhaps hot embers from the firebox) was never officially determined.  What was easily ascertained was the extent of the destruction.  Several narrow gauge locomotives and cars were badly damaged or completely destroyed.  The Shay, a geared locomotive used in logging and mining, relied on hardwood for many of its structural members.  The fired destroyed her wooden sections including the front and rear pilots and most of the cab and some of the tender's frame.  The fire also stripped the paint leaving a layer of rust, melted rubber hoses and gaskets, and burned away the lubricants from every surface.

The Fire

The morning before the fire, like most weekends, the Shay had been plying the rails of the Hesston Steam Museum in Northern Indiana.  Its firebox and fancy balloon stack easily consumed cords of wood while it chuffed up the hefty grades at the museum.  The locomotive could pull every 3' gauge coach and caboose at the museum with power to spare.  It had been put away in the roundhouse that evening as usual.  Some time overnight, the fire started. 

The narrow gauge class C Shay started its life as New Mexico Lumber Co #7 seen here at Hesston in 1975.
At some point, #7 had been re-configured with a "Ruston" stack. photo: Ed Rryz.

Shay Power

A Shay is a very specialized steam engine.  Every wheel on every truck is powered, including the wheels under the tender.  All wheel drive gives a Shay locomotive tremendous traction and power.  To pull well on mountainous track, all Shays are geared way down. They were ideally suited for steep, curvy, uneven track and could out-perform a diesel locomotive on that type of track any day of the week.  They could be found at logging and mining operations all over North America and, being uniquely suited for those operations, the Shays stayed in service long after other steam locomotives were retired.  Many Shays never fully retired.  Approximately 20 Shays have steamed their way into this millennium and can be found  pulling rail fans in museums and tourist railroads all over the US, Canada, and far flung countries.   There are probably as many Shays operating today as any other steam locomotive type.

#7 is a class C (three cylinders, three trucks), 3' gauge 115,000 pounds. The 3 cylinders and drive shaft made the Shay unique among steam locomotives. Builder's photo (shown equipped with its original  Radley & Hunter stack). 
Photo: PE Percy

Shays were constructed at the Lima Locomotive Works of Lima, Ohio. Our Shay, #7, was a "narrow gauge" engine built for 36 inch gauge (56.5 inch is standard gauge) track.  This was one of the last Shays built and the very last narrow gauge Shay.  It was completed on November 20, 1929, just in time for the stock market crash and Great Depression.  Built for the New Mexico Lumber Company in Dolores, Colorado it was purchased for $23,025.  It ran for several years between the towns of Dolores and McPhee until the New Mexico Lumber Co. defaulted on its note and the engine was sold to the  Oregon Lumber Company in 1937.  It ran for 10 years at a logging operation in Oregon before falling idle.    While many locomotive of that era used coal or oil as fuel, #7 was a wood burning locomotive.  Wood was the obvious fuel of choice since this locomotive was used to bringing timbers down to the saw mill and it could run on the "scraps".

An early photo of #7 with an ember trapping "Ruston" stack.
Working around sawdust and lumber, it was important to minimize
the risk of hot embers starting a fire.  

Hesston Volunteers Website photo.  [click image to enlarge]

In 1961 publication printer and railroad enthusiast Elliott Donnelley purchased the locomotive from the Hines Lumber Company, who had taken over the Oregon Lumber Company assets. The engine was sent to the Black Hills Central tourist line at Hill City, South Dakota. The engine operated on a dual gage (36"/standard) line for a short time, then was stored derelict until it was moved to The LaPorte County Historical Society's facility at Hesston Indiana, arriving on July 8, 1970.  After a 5 year restoration, it was rededicated in honor of Mr. Donnelley on August 30, 1975 and was placed in passenger service for the next 9 seasons until the 1985 fire.


Restoration had to wait.  A new roundhouse was needed to replace the burned one.  Other locomotives for revenue service were acquired and restored. Volunteers at Hesston would work on the Shay as time permitted.  They always dreamed of  the day the Shay would run again.  Was it to be?

The old wooden parts, charred and burned, had to be removed.  The accessories like the air pump, bell and headlamp were removed for later restoration.  The rusty metal had to be wire brushed or sanded and primed.  The boiler jacketing was removed, boiler wire brushed, primed and painted, boiler re-insulated, and new boiler jacket installed.  Cab side repairs (warped by fire) were done. Brake equipment was removed, repaired and tested. Cab interior wood work was restored. Pilot beams and truck bolsters were replaced.

The restoration continues (fall, 2003).  The burned wooden parts have been removed and the metal has been, for the most part, wire brushed or sanded and primed. 
Photo by Jim O'Connor  
[click image to enlarge]
Volunteers working on Shay #7's air pump and cylinders. The Shay has been fitted with new pilot beams cut from donated oak timber (winter 2005/2006).  Originally hardwood had been selected for its resiliency and ability to hold together while taking abuse from rough mining and logging operations. The refurbished headlamp/number plate will be one of the last items to be reinstalled. Hesston Volunteers Website
photo by Mike Lagness .
[click image to enlarge]
The newly rebuilt cab of the Shay (winter 2005/2006). Hesston Volunteers Website
photo by Mike Lagness . 
[click image to enlarge]
Spring 2006, boiler insulation is installed prior to the installation of the new jacket. Hesston Volunteers Website
photo by Mike Lagness .  
[click image to enlarge]
Greg is installing the boiler jacket.
Photo by Jim O'Connor 
[click image to enlarge]
The boiler jacket is on, May 7, 2006.  The steam dome cover will be installed after the dents are removed by a local "body and fender" man.
Photo by Jim O'Connor
[click image to enlarge]

Labor Day Weekend Unveiling.

This Shay would never have steamed again if it weren't for the hard work of the Hesston volunteers and the kind generosity of several benefactors.  As of the date of this writing, the restoration goes on as scheduled with a "Re-dedication" and public "unveiling" to be held on the 2006 Labor Day weekend.  As the big day draws near, restoration work accelerates in preparation.  The Shay is expected to pull coaches up the steep "5.5% plus" Hesston grades. The funny "off center" boiler must steam well, the brakes must be in tip-top shape. Those critical items have already been addressed.  The real question is "will she be able to move under her own steam?"  And what about those dozens of finishing touches that will make the Shay as pretty as the day she posed for her first photo in 1929?

Written by Jim O'Connor and Ted Rita

Watch for part II:  "The Shay Steams Again"

Find Hesston with Google Maps

For more information on Shay locomotives, visit
or visit

For the most current news on the Shay restoration, visit


the end

Write the web publisher to ask about use of  this article.

Have an idea for an article?  We need your article on ....

Technical Issues such as problems and solutions associated with , steam locos, hydraulic drives, electric drives. track laying and maintenance, signal systems.

Construction Projects, mostly looking for car projects (let's leave the steamer building to the print magazines). How about scenery construction or building a hand car?

Full scale railroads and museums.  If you work for or volunteer for a railroad, if you've visited one recently and have a few photos and can write up a half dozen paragraphs on it, we'll be happy to put it up on the web.

Live Steam Railroads. How about a little background and a tour of your railroad or one you've visited.

Please share what you know with us.



The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

Read Other Articles

| Live Steam Railroads | Suppliers | Postings | For Sale  |
 | Events Calendar | Books | Magazines | Videos  | Photo Contest |

Hit Counter