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Steam thunders back to W. Md.


CUMBERLAND -- As the black locomotive Mountain Thunder crossed the Potomac River and rolled into Western Maryland Station yesterday, cheers and applause erupted: Steam had returned to Cumberland.

"I feel like a kid again," said state Del. Casper Taylor, an Allegany Democrat, watching the locomotive -- with black-colored steam pouring from its smokestacks -- screech to a halt.

Steam locomotion -- and the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad excursion line -- indeed had returned here. After years of operating leased diesel and steam engines, the nonprofit group had one of its own to make the 16-mile run to Frostburg.

Mountain Thunder, which has the strength of 2 1/2 diesel locomotives, is Maryland's only operating steam locomotive.

"It's almost like a dream come true," said Adrienne Ottaviani, a county commissioner. "We've been anxiously awaiting this like the birth of a grandchild.

"Everybody's been talking about it. Everybody wants to know when the steam is coming."

The locomotive, built in 1916 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works for the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad in Marquette, Mich., begins regular service Wednesday, replacing a diesel engine that has pulled passengers on the excursion line the past two summers.

"This has been a goal of ours since the beginning," said Edward Kemmet, president of the railroad. "We've wanted to own our own steam engine and our own passenger cars.

"This trip has been a long time coming. We're finally able to see our efforts come together."

As the 485,000-pound locomotive chugged along Cumberland's Victorian neighborhoods and scenic vistas, dozens of people stood along the railroad tracks, waving and snapping pictures.

Steam engines, popular between the 1920s and 1940s, haven't been used on a regular basis on the former Western Maryland Railroad lines since the early 1950s, Mr. Kemmet said.

Yesterday's inaugural round trip to Frostburg attracted about 30 people, including local politicians, railroad directors and train enthusiasts. An hour-long delay didn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm.

"With steam engines, you have some mechanical difficulties," Mr. Kemmet said. "It's like any train, over budget and behind schedule."

Wendy Paskus, marketing director of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, said the group bought and restored the engine for about $500,000.

The group initially planned to buy a Chinese-built engine but was persuaded otherwise by the county commissioners.

"We just thought they should have an American-built engine," Ms. Ottaviani said.

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, a group formed in 1987, bought the locomotive last year and began its restoration in August, relying heavily on the skills of Dan Pluta, a steam locomotive expert and the railroad's chief mechanical officer.

"There were no blueprints left for this particular engine," Ms. Paskus said. "Dan had to rely on his own knowledge.

"We've pretty much performed miracles with this project. We're the only tourist railroad that I'm aware of to complete this type of project within a year."

The restoration project required a complete overhaul of the original locomotive.

More than 90 percent of the parts replaced on the engine were machined in the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad shop.

The train originally was used for switching and freight-hauling in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The engine was in service from 1916 until 1956, when it was moved to the Illinois Railway Museum, where it remained on display until its purchase by Western Maryland. With a steam locomotive back on the tracks, the nonprofit group expects ridership on the 90-minute excursion to grow beyond the 40,000 passengers served last year, Ms. Paskus said.

"We're the biggest tourist attraction in Cumberland County," she said. "In past seasons, we've had as many as 50,000 to 60,000 people riding the train."

Ridership waned after Western Maryland began using a diesel locomotive in 1991, she said. It switched to diesel after the owners of its leased steam locomotive moved away, taking the engine.

"There's just not as much interest in diesel," she said. "The steam locomotive is a very good investment for us and should be quite an attraction. This is an exciting day."

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