The wildfires that have ravaged Clackamas County this month have made their mark. Combined, they have burned well over 140,000 acres, destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures and displaced thousands of residents. They also destroyed a piece of Molalla history.
The Oregon Pacific Railroad locomotive no. 801, one of the first dedicated engines to work the branch of railway once known as the “Molalla Western,” was lost to the horrific fire that engulfed the RSG Forest Products lumber mill near Molalla the night of Sept. 7.
The 801 was stored at a small OPR yard south of the mill, which was where some of the heaviest burning was. According to Oregon Pacific Railroad, the locomotive was “effectively burned and mostly destroyed” in the large field and brush fires that surrounded the mill on both sides of Highway 213.
OPR, an independent, family-owned shortline freight transporter known for its friendly attitude toward rail fans and the general public, did not learn of the fires threatening its property and the neighboring mill until late Labor Day evening.
“OPR owner Richard Samuels saw the events unfolding on the 11 p.m. news and rushed to the scene,” said a post on the OPR’s Facebook page. “Fires were still raging in the area, including on RSG property. The 801 was parked in its normal spot in a small OPR yard just south of the mill, across from the highway.”
Initially, it appeared the locomotive was damaged beyond repair and would be a total loss.
“The interior of the cab and exterior were heavily burned and destroyed,” OPR said. “The 801 had a classic, old-style SW-8 wood cab interior and flooring, and this is what caught fire and why the interior cab damage is so extensive. The damage extends into the electrical cabinet and other components.”
Although the company said on Sept. 8 that the locomotive did not appear to be “economically rebuildable,” it teased good news in a more recent update this week.
“The OPR is the in process of replacing it very soon,” the line said in a Facebook post. “And it’s possible that this even may even be rebuilt or converted in the future.”
The 801 was a 1951, 800-horsepower EMD SW8 switch engine that OPR purchased in 1993 shortly after taking over over the Southern Pacific Molalla Branch.
The engine remained on the Molalla Branch its entire service life, and was an OPR workhouse powering runs between Canby and Molalla. In more recent years, it served as the primary switch engine for RSG Forest Products and Willamette Egg runs.
It was repaired multiple times — most notably when the locomotive wore out in the late ’90s and engineers told Samuels it was totaled, but contract heavy diesel mechanic Jerry Van Loo managed to rebuild it.
It was a crew favorite because of its large air compressor, which allowed it to air up trains much faster, and air throttle, which was easier to modulate than the notch throttle most newer locomotives have.
OPR’s primary engine, purchased several years ago to augment the 801, is the no. 1202, which was also routinely parked at the yard near RSG. Fortunately for the line, the 1202 had been safely stored in Canby on the night of Sept. 7.
“The loss of the 1202 would have been far worse,” OPR admitted.
A tamper located in the OPR yard also received some minor damage but appears to be reparable, the company said. The mill also survived the several fires that broke out across its yard mostly intact, which OPR described as “miraculous.”
The OPR does not appear to have suffered major track damage.
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