Like the physical engine itself, the fate of Soo Line Locomotive 2719 appears to be back in Duluth's hands.
The city of Eau Claire, which had been working on a return of the locomotive it owns, curbed to financial reality this week when it voted to reopen attempts to lease the nearly operational 225-ton steam locomotive and tender.
After researching options, the city learned the cost to transport the engine and its coal car would blow out a modest budget.
"The movers of the original resolution to purchase have decided the move is not feasible at this time," said a resolution adopted unanimously by the Eau Claire City Council on Tuesday.
In all likelihood, the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and its North Shore Scenic Railroad will retain the locomotive. Now in protected storage at the Duluth Depot, plans are to return Locomotive 2719 to operational use on a rotational basis with the current passenger mover, Duluth & Northeastern Locomotive 28.
"We've taken good care of the 2719 for the past decade(-plus)," museum and railroad executive director Ken Buehler told the News Tribune on Wednesday. "The engine is in incredible condition and would run right now if the boiler license hadn't expired."
The sides are arranging to meet later this month in Duluth to discuss the future of the engine - "the start of negotiations," Buehler called it.
Buehler explained the history that made running the locomotive again by rail over freight lines untenable. The arrival of Locomotive 2719 to Duluth in 2006 came with a stipulation shared among a pair of since-retired vice presidents of Canadian National Railway and Union Pacific Railroad, Buehler said.
The railroads would arrange to move the engine on the tracks one last time from open-air storage near Eau Claire, Wis. But there was a catch.
"The understanding of all parties was it's going to its destination and never leave," Buehler said. "There was not going to be a next time."
Now more than ever, that appears to be the case. Costs to either tow it, disassemble and move it on a truck, or haul it on a flatbed train run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Buehler said.
As one of the rare steam engines that's nearly operational left in existence, Locomotive 2719 could be seen as potentially priceless. But because of exorbitant costs to move the engine, as the city of Eau Claire learned, the locomotive has a limited actual value and has been exchanged for handfuls of dollars during a series of transactions in the past two decades.
Between 2006 and 2013, Locomotive 2719 ran for the North Shore Scenic Railroad between Duluth and Two Harbors. Originally, it ran as a freight train for roughly 40 years up until its retirement in 1960, working throughout the region. After that, it was on display in Eau Claire until 1996, when the series of transactions began.
Theoretically, some other entity could be interested in the locomotive, Buehler said. And if Duluth doesn't want it, the city of Eau Claire has stipulated it will issue a national request for proposals for either a long-term lease arrangement, or even a buyer, the resolution said.
But the Duluth museum and railroad already have a long-term plan to raise approximately $300,000 necessary to update the boiler to meet Federal Railroad Administration standards.
Boiler licenses expire every 15 years, and Buehler explained plans are to alternate locomotives 28 and 2719 every 15 years as those licenses come due.
One locomotive would be used to run guests to Two Harbors, as the 28 does now, while organizers would fundraise and pay to update the other locomotive during intervening years in order to get it ready to run again. Under such a plan, Locomotive 2719 would operate again in about 2031.
Securing a new boiler license requires the modernizing of tubes and other parts of the boiler, Buehler said - describing about two years of work once a three-year fundraising effort is achieved.
"Our plan is to get the 2719 running," Buehler said, "So, it's a leapfrog from one right to the other - forever."