Museum to launch fundraising campaign for Engine 39

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Don Fisher, president of the Railroad Museum of Long Island, stands by what’s left of the historic Engine 39. The boiler is still in Pennsylvania where it being repaired until the nonprofit museum ran out of money.

Back in the late 1970s, a group of railroad enthusiasts began the dream of bringing an old steam locomotive from Stony Brook to Riverhead so they could restore it, and even use it to run tourist trips between Riverhead and Greenport.

Fast-forward to 2012: The restoration of Engine 39, which was build in 1929, still is not complete and a lot more money is needed before the long-held dream ever becomes a reality.

The Railroad Museum of Long Island, which took over the Engine 39 preservation efforts from the Engine 39 Restoration Committee in the early 1990s, received an $800,000 grant for the work in 1996.

But that money was all spent by December 2009 and the group stopped work on the engine, leaving parts of it — including the boiler and firebox — in a restoration shop in Strasburg, Pa., where they remain. Other portions of the locomotive, including the cab and the wheels, are in Riverhead.

“We’re not giving up,” said museum president Don Fisher.

The downturn in the economy has made it difficult to get grants or donations for the job, and he estimates that completing the restoration will require an additional $2 million.

So instead of seeking more government grants, the museum, which has locations in Riverhead and Greenport, plans to go national with its campaign to restore Engine 39, he said.

And it’s going to happen next year.

“Beginning in 2013, we’re starting a nationwide, grass-roots donations campaign to raise the $2 million,” he said. “This is a paradigm shift for the museum. This is a complete turn away from government grants or entitlements. We’re not going to go to the government anymore, because we can’t. The taxpayers, I don’t believe, support preservation and history like they used to. These are tough times. So we’re going to turn to a nationwide campaign.”

The first step for the group is to obtain lists of as many railroad enthusiasts and history buffs as possible, and then try to solicit donations from them, Mr. Fisher said.

“If we can get 2 million people across the United States to send in one dollar, we can get this job done,” he said. “We can get the restoration completed — and without government grants.

“This is not limited to Long Island,” he added. “This has interest to a much wider industrial history group.”

Engine 39 is one of only three locomotives of its type remaining in the U.S., according to Mr. Fisher. During its heyday, it could reach great speeds quickly, travel at more than 80 mph and also stop quickly.

Another steam engine, featured with Engine 39 in the Long Island Rail Road’s 1955 “End of Steam” ceremony in Hicksville, is now at the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum. The third, a diesel locomotive known as Engine 1556, is also at the Railroad Museum of Long Island’s museum and yard at Griffing and Railroad avenues in Riverhead.

There are a number of other old trains and train cars the group has restored, or is working on, as well as a gift shop, an historic Lionel train layout and a working miniature train from the 1964 World’s Fair.

The long range goal for Engine 39, “if we can get $2 million,” Mr. Fisher said, is still to run dinner trains between Riverhead and Greenport and vineyard excursions on the weekends.

He’s hopeful that going nationwide will be the answer.

“If we can’t get the money that way, honestly, I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” Mr. Fisher said. “But we’re not giving up. We’re chartered by the State Education Department as stewards of this equipment for everybody in New York.

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