Rail history: The effort to return iconic Flying Yankee to Concord

Monitor staff
Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2016
It sounds straightforward: Take a sleek, historic train that traveled the rails of New England for two decades out of storage in the White Mountains and bring it back to the Concord rail yards where it was once maintained, creating the centerpiece of a transportation museum that can revitalize the city center.

Wonderful idea. But there’s an obstacle, and you can probably guess what it is.

“The minimum, just to move it, is probably $65,000 to $75,000, depending on where it’s moved and the condition under which it’s moved,” said Wayne Gagnon, who rode in the Flying Yankee as a child when his father, grandfather and godfather were all locomotive engineers for what was then the Boston and Maine Railroad.

Even if the 200-foot-long Flying Yankee can get to Concord, it’s not in great shape, having been out of service for 49 years. Restoring the diesel locomotive, which doesn’t run, and its two attached cars will cost millions of dollars. Then there’s the expense of housing it.

The train is actually owned by the state, which bought it from a private owner years ago, but tax dollars are not likely to be spent on its rehabilitation. So it’s up to private money, yet the necessary sums have proved too much for the nonprofit Flying Yankee Restoration Group, whose efforts at fixing up the stainless steel “streamliner” have stalled.

Matters are coming to a head because the Hobo Railroad in Lincoln, where the Flying Yankee has been under wraps for a decade, wants it moved so it can make better use of the tracks on which it sits.

Happily for Concord, there is a place where the Flying Yankee could be stored while its future is decided. Better yet, it’s a place with historical connections to the train: the rail sidings behind Big Jim’s Home Center on South Main Street, a building that once housed rail facilities where trains including the Flying Yankee were maintained.

“It would be perfect for us. We have a wall mural of what this area looked like when this area was used to repair and maintain trains,” said Don Steenbeke, vice president with his sister Laura of Big Jim’s, a descendant of the lumberyard in Boscawen started by their grandfather, Jim Steenbeke.

The Steenbeke family rather than Pan Am Railways, formerly Guilford, owns the land where the sidings sit. Because the sidings are still connected to the main line, bringing the Flying Yankee would be a straight shot from Lincoln with relatively few track upgrades needed.

“The timing now is right, because the Steenbekes would allow us to park this train on their siding and we have an active rail line,” said Don Sweet, another board member for the Flying Yankee Restoration Group.

Sweet is scheduled to meet with City Manager Tom Aspell later this month to see if Concord can help get the train here.

Sweet points to the way other cities have used railroad heritage as an economic driver, including White River Junction, Vt., and points to a long-discussed vision of creating a transportation museum that would connect the Flying Yankee with the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center as well as with the city’s best-known historical product.

“It would be cool if we had a type of museum or setting about transportation. People could learn about trains, about rockets, and of course about Concord coaches,” he said.

There’s even a good location for such a museum, next to rail lines just north of Loudon Road, visible when you get off the highway at Exit 14 and head downtown.

That’s where the city wants to extend Storrs Street, connecting it with Constitution Avenue in a project that is slated to start construction in 2017 or 2018, which would make it perfect for a museum and visitor center.

That’s the vision, anyway. The immediate issue is getting the Flying Yankee here so it can be protected and spruced up.

“If it’s going to be moved, it needs to be public access, some type of a security, just can’t put it in the middle of a parking lot and expect people not to take pieces of it, shoot out the windows, something like that,” Gagnon said.

“If we can get the city involved, we can get our project kick-started again,” he said. “It can happen.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)