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What looked like a brown-headed cowbird flitted onto the front end of the old logging locomotive at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula on Thursday.

It cocked its head down at Larry Ingold as he pointed out the most weathered parts of old No. 7. Then Mr. Bird popped through a rusted hole inside of the huge diamond-shaped smokestack.

“Must be a nest in there,” Ingold noted.

There are dozens of unknowns about the locomotive manufactured in 1923 at the Willamette Iron and Steel Works in Portland, Oregon, and for the last 30 years a centerpiece at the county museum. The steam engine chugged up and down drainages of the Blackfoot Valley hauling logs in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and came out of retirement in 1954 to co-star in the Hollywood production of “Timberjack.”

Ingold and museum officials are in the early but encouraging stages of figuring out how to save it from the elements, if not restore it.

“At the very minimum we want to make sure that it’s preserved and that it doesn’t continue to deteriorate,” said Matt Lautzenheiser, the museum’s executive director.

There are funding sources to identify and a condition report to complete before further restoration measures are considered, he added.

Ingold will set up an information table, and No. 7 will open its cab doors to visitors Saturday at the annual Forestry Day at Fort Missoula, which is preceded on Friday by preliminary collegiate competition of the nation’s only Pro-Am Logging Show.

Professional and collegiate lumberjacks and lumberjills from throughout the Northwest and Canada will be competing. As usual, the University of Montana’s Woodsman team is in the mix of an event hosted for the past 23 years by the Society of American Foresters (SAF).

One feature on Friday’s competition schedule is log rolling, or burling, which SAF historian and event coordinator Scott Kuehn said will start around 3 p.m.

Saturday will be a day of ax throwing, more burling, pole climbing and cross-cut sawing. Loudest and perhaps most popular of all are the hot saws, oversized homemade or self-modified chain saws that, according to SAF promotional material, are “10% chain saw and 90% alcohol and nitro-burning, fire-breathing monsters.”

Outside the logging stadium, antique logging equipment will be fired up. The collection includes a “new” addition, a 1927 Caterpillar Sixty that Kuehn spent the winter rebuilding and fired up for the first time this week. Horses will give high-wheel logging demonstrations, and the working steam-powered sawmill will be sawing wood.

It's all a nod to the long and formative history of the timber industry in Missoula County, a niche in which the No. 7 locomotive fits comfortably.

It was designed as an improvement to the similar Shay engine manufactured in Lima, Ohio, and one of just 32 of what Ingold said were “kind of a 4-wheel drive steam engine” produced by Willamette Iron and Steel. Some 2,700 Shays were built.

The Anaconda Company’s lumber division in Bonner operated a fleet of eight logging locomotives. The other seven were Shays. No. 7 was the only one built by Willamette that was powered by coal steam rather than oil.

Among their endearing aspects: they were built for easy maintenance. 

“These were designed to go out into the woods, break and have a guy with a rock and hammer out there fixing them,” said Ingold, who has no trouble climbing under this one.

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No. 7 was first operated by William A. Clark’s Western Lumber Co., headquartered across the Blackfoot River from the Anaconda’s Bonner mill. It was delivered in July 1924 to Western Lumber’s Arthur Spur, two miles east of Arlee. Anaconda bought out Western Lumber Co. and its locomotive in 1928, putting it to work mostly in the Blackfoot for the next 20 years.

By the late 1940s, trucks had shouldered out trains in the logging world. No. 7 was retired in 1948 and stored in the Bonner mill yard until Republic Pictures came to town in 1954. The motion picture “Timberjack,” a tale of logging wars in the West, featured actors Sterling Hayden, Vera Ralston, Chill Wells and composer/actor Hoagy Carmichael.

By the 1960s it was on display in a park adjacent to the Bonner plant. In January 1989 it was lifted by a pair of cranes onto a low-boy trailer and hauled to Fort Missoula, a gift from Anaconda’s successor, Champion International.

Ingold spent 10 years operating Sierra Railway’s Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, California. His resume is packed with the restorations and operations of historic engines, and he’s lost count of how many movies he appeared in with trains. 

“Maybe 35 or 40,” he said.

He chuckled Thursday while sitting in the engineer's perch in No. 7 when he recounted a runaway train scene in the 1990 film “Back to the Future III.” Actress Mary Steenburgen, as Clara Clayton, leaned out of Sierra Railway’s “movie star locomotive” and hollered “Emmitt!” to Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown.

“She was sitting on my lap,” Ingold said.

Retired, Ingold and his wife Jan moved to Hamilton a couple of years ago. Restless, he went looking for a project and found one at Fort Missoula.

“We were so fortunate that Larry found us,” said Lautzenheiser. “He kind of fell into our laps.”

The deteriorating engine had been a sticking point at the museum for years.

“One of the challenges of a project this big that’s so specialized is you really need somebody who knows what they’re doing and is kind of willing to be a champion of a project like this," Lautzenheiser said. "That’s kind of what Larry’s becoming for us.”

Ingold held an exploratory meeting in March at the museum that he estimated drew 35-40 people.

“We’ve developed a list off that of people who were interested in helping, and then we’ve been kind of waiting,” he said. “The weather hasn’t been awfully conducive to coming out here and working.”

That’ll change soon, as work days are planned starting next week in conjunction with those of Kuehn and the foresters. Ingold said the group has two main goals: to assess the condition of the locomotive inside and out, and to get a roof over its head for the first time in its life. 

“Doing a huge amount of work without getting it under cover is kind of like throwing sand against the tide,” said Ingold, who envisions a pole barn.

Lautzenheiser said there are preservation grants available, some specific to train restoration and railroad history. Private donations and adopt-a-piston type programs are also possibilities.

“We see it as definitely a few-year project,” he said. “It’s not something that I can tell you six months from now we’re going to have a brand new sparkly train that runs.”

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