Scenic railroad waits in line among fixes

ELBE - The Memorial Day weekend was supposed to revitalize businesses in the Elbe-Ashford area that had suffered since heavy rains and flooding closed Mount Rainier National Park in November.

For the most part, efforts under way have helped toward recovery. The park reopened in early May, just in time for the kickoff to the summer season. Restaurants, lodges and stores a dozen miles west of Mount Rainier welcomed back park visitors who were absent for six months.

But one Elbe business missed out: the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad.

Despite millions spent fixing roads in the park that washed out during the flood, no money has been available to fix a railroad bridge over the Nisqually River between the towns of Elbe and Mineral.

The bridge owned by the city of Tacoma and operated by Tacoma Rail still cuts off the scenic railroad from its station in Elbe, the site of a new depot the railroad dedicated in September as it celebrated its 25th anniversary.

"What I am trying to do is keep things running until the bridge is fixed," said Steve Sadtler, general manager of the scenic railroad. "It means we need to develop an entirely new program up here."

The railroad now runs its trains on weekends from a yard in Mineral to Divide, a crest of foothills between the towns of Mineral and Morton. It also plans to run trips from Mineral all the way to Morton on selected Saturdays.

But the key to the railroad's operation is the depot in Elbe, which sits along Highway 7 on the way to the park's Paradise entrance.

The chances of out-of-towners unexpectedly coming upon the train yard in Mineral, which the railroad leases from West Fork timber, are next to none.

Sadtler said the number of riders over the Memorial Day weekend was about half what it was last year, from down from 500 to 250 riders. For all of 2006, the scenic railroad carried about 20,000 passengers.

It's unknown how long the railroad will remain separated from the Elbe depot.

The bridge, made of steel, still remains relatively unharmed. However, the raging river washed away the bank under the tracks on both sides of the bridge.

Fixing the bridge is expected to cost between $2.7 million and $2.9 million. The city of Tacoma has applied for grants, including one from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Sue Veseth, spokeswoman for Tacoma Rail.

Once money becomes available - no one knows when that might happen - Tacoma Rail could award contracts and finish construction in seven months "in a perfect world," Veseth said.

Meanwhile, other Elbe-Ashford area businesses ended the Memorial Day weekend with a sigh of relief.

"It was wonderful, just like nothing happened," said Phil Freeman, owner of Copper Creek Inn, several miles west of the Paradise entrance on Highway 706.

He said his lodging sold out during the weekend, and his restaurant was packed with park visitors.

"It was very vibrant," Freeman said this week. "Just like how it used to be, and just like how it should be. I think everybody was feeling a big sense of relief."

The scenic railroad is a nonprofit organization supported by volunteers, ticket sales and donations. It added 25 volunteers this spring, beefing up to about 100 people.

Local organizations are offering help to promote the railroad. One local artist has opened a gallery at the Elbe depot to attract tourists and send them to the train yard in Mineral.

But even with the help, Sadtler won't breathe easier anytime soon. "We need to show that we can break even and not depend on donors," he said.