Tuesday, 10 May 2016

"Buried for 47 Years" - The Amazing Preservation Story of the Rogers K88 "Washington"


K88 "Washington"
at The Plains Railway
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

We have already read in my first two blog instalments [click here for link] about the inaugural express train from Christchurch to Dunedin in September 1878 led by the American built "K88 Washington" (named by the manufacturer after the first US President) and for part of the way, the English built Double-Fairlie "Josephine". We will now read about their preservation, having in both cases come so very, very close to being lost to us forever. Let me first relate the amazing story of the discovery and restoration of the American Rogers built "K88 Washington" of 1877, that "flashy" and "ornamental" "watch with all its works outside" which had soon proved its doubters wrong and henceforth changed forever the focus of New Zealand Railway steam locomotive design and procurement.


The original 'Kingston Flyer' and crew at Kingston Railway
Station with an unidntified "K" class locomotive.
Note the half "birdcage" carriage. Taken post 1903.
[Photo credit : NZ Railways Publicity]

By 1885 heavier trains on the main line and the consequent introduction of newer and more powerful locomotives had meant the relegation of the "K" class from hauling main line expresses to lighter branch passenger and goods trains and (according to The Plains Railway website) sometimes acting as bankers on the steep hills north of Dunedin. In 1902 "Washington", along with other members of her class, now valiantly found a new claim to fame - hauling passenger trains west from Gore across the Waimea Plains to Lumsden and then north following the Upper Mataura River valley before crossing the glacial moraines to Kingston to meet the Lake Wakatipu steamers. The "K" class maintained their reputation for quick acceleration and speed so that this passenger service soon earned the apt title of "The Kingston Flyer".

The South Island based members of the "K" class were reboilered with a flat topped "Belpaire" firebox and boiler in 1903 replacing the original round topped "wagon-top" firebox, The new boilers were now certified up to 160 psi (pounds per square inch) whereas the originals had only been to 130 psi so a useful increase in performance would have been expected. They were also fitted with a steel cab to replace the wooden original as well as Westinghouse brake equipment.


Written off Locomotives, including  K88 "Washington",
being dumped in the Oreti River at Oporo.
Photo By Jim Graham, 5th June 1927
[Source : Spankiebnz]

But in November 1926, and now declared obsolete and needing major mechanical work which was not economically justified, "K88", along with a number of sister engines, were then relegated to "rotten row" in the Invercargill railway yards to await their fate. With scrap metal prices being depressed, railways management then made the decision to strip the engines of any useful parts and to dump them by the Oreti River at Oporo near Branxholme in Southland as flood protection for the then busy Makarewa to Thornbury line.


Written off Locomotives, including  K88 "Washington",
dumped in the Oreti River at Oporo.

Photo By Jim Graham, 1927 
[Source : Spankiebnz]

Thus on the 5th June 1927, "Washington" was ignominiously craned over and rolled down the embankment where she came to rest by the river bed, her frame and cowcatcher being bent in the process. Thirteen other locomotives were lowered and dropped around her including a "V" class coming to rest almost on top of her. Watching and photographing this event was a young railways employee, the late Jim Graham Q.S.M., whom I met in the course of business in the 1980's. I struck up a bit of a friendship with him through our mutual interest in railways and he presented me with an album of locomotive cigarette cards. I've never forgotten his generosity.

At the time the locomotived were dumped at Oporo, elderly enginemen interviewed by "The Southland Times" reminisced about the loss of their "pets" as they used to call their favourite engines. But truth is often stranger than fiction and dumping K88 in the river ultimately proved to be her salvation. One still wished that New Zealand Railways had taken greater pride in their old locomotives (as Dunedin did with "Josephine" which I will feature in my next blog) and preserved a member of each class as static exhibits. But it was not to be.


The remains of a "V" class locomotive at
the Oporo Dump Site, taken about 1982
[From my own collection]

While it was always known that members of the American "K" Class rested here amongst English "V", a "J", "P" and "V" class locomotives, those that remained above the water level and mud of the riverbank just remained a novelty for those curious enough to walk along the now little used railway line from a nearby road and explore this relatively unknown, abandoned and now overgrown locomotive graveyard (myself included!). Immediately bordering this area is the Invercargill Water Works and settlement ponds so I was a little nervous at even being in the immediate area.  

[Update : I have found a 1986 reference in "The Southland Times" that a further two "A" class locos and a "WF" class loco were also dumped at Oporo in 1948.]


A locomotive tender at the Oporo Dump Site
beside the Oreti River, 
taken about 1982
[From my own collection] 

But the revival of the "Kingston Flyer" steam train service between Lumsden and Kingson by New Zealand Railways in Dec 1971 piqued the interest of members of the Lumsden Lions Club in exhuming a reasonably intact "K" class locomotive, being an original "Kingston Flyer" engine, including a suitable tender, to display at Lumsden. Even if a suitable "K" were found and exhumed. there was no thought of other than a basic "cosmetic" restoration at best and the display of what remained. How could anything else be realistically possible?


The rusted hulk of K88 "Washington" after being 
pulled out of the mud at Oporo in January 1974
[Source : The Southland Times]

An investigation of the Oporo dump site at Branxholme by Lion's Club members in 1973, assisted by 30 volunteers, uncovered a "K" class locomotive seemingly "in fairly good condition", buried in mud and silt. Braving wind and occasional showers, and assisted by a tow truck to pull out obstructing trees plus three sludge pumps, they managed to dig around the boiler casings so that the locomotive could be more easily inspected. Amazingly some brass work on the engine was apparently intact although the sand dome, connecting rods and steel cab were missing and the rear bogie had come adrift from the rest of the locomotive but was in itself also intact.

But now the subject of finance to remove the locomotive and prepare it for display at Lumsden came to the fore. A figure of $6,000 was placed on just housing the engine but "tens of thousands of dollars more to sandblast, refit and repaint". Thereafter interest "had waned as the job was thought to be too big".


(L to R) Merv Coutts, Wayne Nicoll and Hans Tyssen
inspect the rusty remains of K88 "Washington" at Oporo.
Taken January 1974
[Source : The Southland Times]

Nevertheless, it was a group of interested Southland Vintage Car Club enthusiasts led by Wayne Nicoll (who, it is reported, had known the position of this "K" since 1963), Merv Coutts and Jack Toomey who, in January 1974, and after "being spurred on by a certain amount of pub-talk", decided to have the locomotive extricated from its muddy grave. This involved a whole weekend of hard work using two bulldozers when the river was at its lowest level. The Invercargill City Council also helpfully held back the flow of water from the nearby waterworks. The appearance of the "K", which was now sitting upright, having been pulled out of its 8 foot hole, was then described as [looking] "pretty rough". It is only at this point that the locomotive is referred to as the famous "K88 Washington". How that attribution was then made is not recorded.

The vintage car enthusiasts now offered the locomotive to any interested body who would take it for restoration "with no cost attached". If no interest was forthcoming the locomotive would, according to the Council, have to be bulldozed back into its hole. But if any group were sufficiently interested the enthusiasts generously offered to extricate a tender which was also resting in the silt of the river bank.

While some interest was shown this came to nothing. that is, until the Ashburton Steam Preservation Society stepped in. In spite of the rust, Mr Nicol believed that the locomotive "was in good shape" and that there was every prospect that it could run again. A suitable Rogers built "K" tender was then located.


"K88 Washington" loaded onto a transporter
prior to be trucked to Ashburton, June 1974.
[Source : The Southland Times]

So, in June 1974, and after lying on the river bank for six months, a transporter finally took the remains off to Ashburton thus beginning a new chapter in the history of "K88 Washington". Unfortunately a steam chest [the block fitted above the piston casing and containing the steam valve] had been removed at the Branxholme site and left behind because it was too heavy to carry. When the Society President, Mr S.J. French, returned to the site it was gone and must have required more than one person to remove it. Despite appeals for its return, it was never been located and a new one had to be cast.

Driving force, society member the late Bob Anderson, a woolbuyer by trade but having engineering skills, now "made the restoration work his pet project" with the initial aim of having the locomotive operational by 1978, when it would be 100 years old. Mr Anderson had looked down at the locomotive remains as he travelled past the Oporo dump site on his way to Riverton in the 1930's little realizing that he would one day spend eight years restoring one.

Mr Anderson now set himself a target of removing one and a half bolts each night after finishing his normal day job. The right hand piston proved troublesome, having seized and "took a lot of shifting, over a month". He freely admitting that "it nearly drove me round the twist" and "he did not know if he loved the engine or hated it". It was during the dismantling process that a brass fitting was discovered stamped "K88" which finally put to rest any doubts that this was indeed the famous "Washington".


The late Bob Anderson, driving force behind
the restoration of "K88 Washington"
[Source : The Southland Times]

After three years of work the locomotive had been stripped down to component parts and Mr Anderson then progressed to having the boiler ultrasonically tested, being  passed as "sound" which is quite amazingly considering it still carried the original "Belpaire" boiler fitted in 1903. The Marine Department now authorized the re-tubing of the 110 tubes in the boiler. The firebox was in reasonable shape, only requiring minor patching. The re-use of the boiler and firebox had then been critical to the full restoration of the engine to steaming condition.

After re-tubing, a boiler hydraulic test took place in April 1978, gaining an authorized steaming pressure of 130 psi [pounds per square inch]. While this was less than the original pressure of 160 psi the boiler was in fact tested to 245 psi. Boiler testing is undertaken with high pressure cold water thus no explosion is possible and at worst a leak is all that would occur. The boiler was mounted back onto the frame in October 1979. Specialized machining of parts was either done by a local specialist engineering firm or by the Hillside Railway Workshops in Dunedin. While restoration work had for the first five years been mostly carried out in the open air, "Washington" was now moved into the engine shed for the rest of the assembly. At one point a serious illness left Mr Anderson wondering if he would get to complete his project but thankfully he recovered to continue the restoration.


The cab and brass lettering on K88 "Washington",
taken at "The Plains Railway", March 2016
[From my own collection] 

Work continued through to 1980 on replacements parts including the ash pan, boiler fittings, cylinder covers and a brass steam dome. Mr Anderson was delighted when another Society member sold a single R class (English) Fairlie locomotive brass steam dome which was then used in the restoration of K88. the ribbed replacement sand dome being ingeniously made of fibreglass.

On the 17th May 1980 the Minister of Railways, who had promised to present a bell when restoration was completed (never seriously considering it would be completed!), then had to search high and low for a suitable bell to present to the Society. Astonishingly, this bell was later found to have come from sister locomotive 1877 built "K87 Lincoln" (named after the US President). A new wooden cab of "ash and beech" to match the original (apparently in walnut) had been made and fitted by a local Ashburton cabinetmaker with the letters "Washington" on the side of the cab being cut from the original brass boiler bands.

For the first time since 1927, "K88 Washington" finally moved briefly under its own power on the 7th November 1981. This was an entirely unrehearsed event under the direction of Mr Anderson for a television film crew who were present on the day and only eventuated through the boiler being "in steam" and the arrival at 10 am of a valve cover which was hastily bolted on. One piston rod was still missing along with valve spindle packing. But to move just 100 yards on the day was a major achievement for what most had originally considered an impossible project. With these missing items rectified the following day "Washington" completed several more short runs.


K88 "Washington" pictured at 
The Plains Railway, 27th March 2016 
[From my own collection]

Further work still to be completed before her expected re-commissioning in 1982 included fitting piston rings, re-setting the bent and damaged original cow catcher (partly using fittings taken from another locomotive), making and fitting brake shoes, hangers and linkage for the coupled axle, and fitting the cab floor and tender drawbar. Quite a bit of work was still required on the tender.

In 1982, Southland film producer Wattie Norman, who had filmed the exhumation of "Washington" from her muddy grave, was now riding on and filming that very same engine in steam at "The Plains Railway" at Tinwald. As the principal restorer Bob Anderson noted, "the old engine ran remarkably smoothly due, [he thinks] to the very large wheels it has." The official recommissioning ceremony took place in November 1982 with Bob Anderson at the regulator. Mr Anderson estimated that it had taken him 10,000 hours of work to restore the engine. Also on the footplate was 94 year old W. (Bill) Fraser who rode on "Washington" as a New Zealand Railways apprentice at Gore in 1909.


Bob Anderson on the footplate of K88 "Washington" in 1983
[Source : NZWW Nov 1983]

Her restoration to working condition made world news, most especially in the international railway press. While the driving force behind the restoration had been Bob Anderson, he was always supported by willing and dedicated helpers, especially when some of the major tasks had to be done.

After some years of occasional running on "The Plains Railway" "Washington" was last steamed for Bob Anderson's funeral in June 1987 after which she failed her boiler examination. The society now commenced the task of removing the boiler tubes but ultimately the firebox and boiler barrel were condemned due to wasting away of the metal. Thereafter, "Washington" sat forlornly in parts for some years until a new all steel welded boiler could be designed and funded at a cost of around $150,000, being made by a Lyttelton Engineering firm. Before being recommissioned again in 2002 a great deal of additional engineering work was undertaken on her that had not been able to be undertaken during Mr Anderson's initial restoration. This included the straightening of her bent frame from when she had rolled down the bank at Oporo.


K88 "Washington" at the Dunedin Railway Station Centennial,
taken October 2006
[Source : From my own collection]

In 2006, "Washington" was transported south where she took an honoured part in the centennial celebrations for the Dunedin Railway Station. Here, and in steam, she took part in the locomotive cavalcade as well as running short trips in a "push pull" service for the public down to Sawyers Bay. She thus retraced a very small part of her epic journey of September 1878. An eye catching aspect of her appearance here was the interpretation of her "loud livery", having reputedly carried a "kaleidoscope of colours [of] green, blue, yellow, red, purple, and gold" when first placed in service in 1878.


K88 "Washington" at the Dunedin Railway Station Centennial,
taken October 2006

[Source : From my own collection]

She continues to be steamed occasionally on "The Plains Railway" [click for link] where she enjoys a well earned retirement not far from the main south line where she triumphantly steamed past on that memorable journey 138 years ago. On the 26th February 1984 I travelled on the footplate and well remember Bob Anderson at the regulator with his fireman, John Mitchell. I still have the cine sound film I took during this visit, including on the footplate.


K88 "Washington" preparing for departure at
The Plains Railway, 27th March 2016
[From my own collection]

This Easter (2016) I travelled in a period carriage behind "K88" where a new much younger generation of railway enthusiasts obviously took an equal amount of pride in not just presenting "Washington" in a gleaming and extremely well cared for manner but also in having the pleasure of being able to drive the famous - and now quite priceless - 1877 built Rogers "K88". Not bad for a locomotive buried for 47 years and whose restoration relied on so many inter-related events and people. So, never let it be said that "pub talk" is a waste of time.


K88 "Washington" with members of the Canterbury
Military Vehicle Club taken at The Plains Railway,
taken 27th March 2016
[Source : From my own collection]

Finally, I highly recommend this very professional HD film of "K88 Washington" running on The Plains Railway, having been taken by a talented young rail enthusiast, Robert Boulton, in 2015. But for the Belpaire style boiler, the incongruous water tank behind the tender (in case of any line side fires due to very dry conditions), and the slightly more modern red carriages (originally Pullman green) dating from 1908 to 1915, the segment of the video between 4.06 and 4.42 could just as easily be "Washington" with Ben Verdon at the regulator heading south on the inaugural express in September 1878. Who would have believed that 138 years later this almost timeless scene could ever have been recreated.


      

Footnote :

The un-restored remains of another "K" can be found at The Plains Railway, that of "K94" of 1878, having been excavated from Oporo in March 1986 and trucked north to Tinwald. Bob Anderson had hoped to restore this locomotive which "is expected to take between five and seven years depending on availability of spare parts". Upon excavation "The wheels spun freely and the bearing boxes were still packed with grease and a rag wick". But Mr Anderson's death in 1987 precluded any further work on this locomotive. The stripped down remains may today be seen behind the large locomotive shed at "The Plains Railway" where the massive J class No 1260 locomotive (currently undergoing boiler work) normally resides.

The former Fiordland Vintage Machinery Club did complete the restoration of "K92" which also entered service in December 1878. It can normally be viewed at the fledgling Waimea Plains Railway at Mandeville. Update Dec 2016 : "K92" has just been moved to "Southern Steam" at Invercargill for a ten year boiler survey. This is hopefully good news as she has been "out of ticket" for some years now and starting to look rather forlorn. She carries her "pre-dump" boiler so fingers crossed that some re-tubing is all that is required.


Sources :

- Papers Past / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- New Zealand Electronic Text Collective / Te Pūhikotui o Aotearoa
- The New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1934
- "The Southland Times"
- "The Ashburton Guardian"
- "Rails" magazine
- "The Plains Railway" website
- "The New Zealand Women's Weekly", 1983
- "The New Zealand Motor World", 1983.

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