0916 tommy thompson train

Anacortes Railway tickets from 1980 and 1986. A Lincoln, California vintage restorer and an Anacortes non-profit are competing to acquire and operate the train. (Courtesy / Misty Dyer)  

Getting the Tommy Thompson Train operational — whether in Anacortes or in a city near Sacramento, California — is proving to be no easy challenge.

A designer and vintage restorer – who is also the voice of Mickey Mouse for film – proposes moving the Tommy Thompson Train, aka Anacortes Railway, to Lincoln, California, northeast of Sacramento, and operating it as an amusement ride.

But there are a lot of moving pieces to the proposal. The family doesn’t yet own the land. It’s not known when the train would be in operation. And the proposal is news to officials in Lincoln. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information related to the Tommy Thompson Train, nor did any other staff members that I spoke to,” Lincoln City Clerk Gwen Scanlon wrote to the American in response to an inquiry by the newspaper.

Those loose ends may prompt the Anacortes City Council to give another look at the proposal. The issue: if proposed buyer Bret Iwan’s plans fall through, the city could end up paying the costs of bringing the train back.

“It’s a discussion we’ll need to have at the council level,” Mayor Laurie Gere said Monday.

Meanwhile, the Anacortes Railway Group has proposed operating the train between Ben Root Skate Park and 34th Street using right of way on the Tommy Thompson Trail. But group president Dave Sem said Monday his nonprofit’s current priority would be to create a proper, climate-controlled display space for the train, in keeping with an agreement the city and the Thompson family signed in 2012 when the family donated the train to the city.

Sem said the group is not backing away from the idea of operating the train. “It looks like there are too many headwinds” threatening that proposal, Sem said, and he thinks the best first step would be to abide by the conditions of the 2012 agreement.

The City Council is expected to discuss the train’s fate — selling the train to Iwan or to the Anacortes Railway Group — on Sept. 28. Iwan’s proposal has the blessing of the Thompson family, which donated the train to the city eight years ago but revised its agreement in December to allow the city to sell the train. The train is stored in the train barn at The Depot Arts Center, which was originally a Great Northern Train depot.

Sem said his nonprofit has the resources and support to properly display the train and someday operate it here. He noted that it was local volunteers who moved the train to Anacortes from storage in Seattle when it was donated to the city. Local volunteers also got the train operational for a short run in 2015. Sem said the team of supporters includes Ryan Handel, an engineer on the Mount Rainier Railroad and, formerly, the Anacortes Railway; three local construction companies; and local service clubs and nonprofits.

Iwan, his father and three brothers are partners in Iwan Locomotive Works. The partnership proposes buying the train — the locomotive, three passenger cars, and rail and equipment — from the city for $117,500, according to documents on file with the city. According to the Thompsons’ revised agreement, proceeds from the sale would be used to “interpret and memorialize the legacy of Thomas G. Thompson, Jr. and his Train and support the work of the Anacortes Museum.”

Iwan expects to spend $10,000 to $15,000 shipping the train to California. Restoration costs are estimated between $20,000 and $30,000. Initial track supplies and installation will cost an estimaed $1.1 million. Annual operating costs will be $55,000. Unknown costs: permitting and construction of storage facilities and safety infrastructure.

“More than the investment, it’s a commitment to honor the detailed care and vision Tommy had,” Iwan wrote. “He wouldn’t let the train leave the car barn unless all the brass was shined to perfection, and the green jacket sparkled. That personal investment is invaluable.”

In a letter to the city, Iwan wrote that riding on the Anacortes train as a child influenced his love of railroading. (Iwan Locomotive Works custom-built a 15-inch gauge electric railroad that encircles a family member’s home in a Lincoln neighborhood. “It’s been a great testing ground for our much larger vision,” Iwan wrote.)

Where Iwan would operate the Tommy Thompson Train has not been determined. “The location is truly contingent upon the railroad equipment we ultimately operate,” Iwan wrote to the American. “Our pending land acquisition offers 10 acres of rolling hills with old growth trees and rock formations, allowing for an exciting route.”

Regarding when the train would be in operation, Iwan wrote, “Without possession of the equipment and a detailed evaluation, an exact timeline is hard to define … Our plan starts with the preservation of the equipment, custom maintenance facilities, and then establishing a right of way which offers the best possible experience.”

Iwan didn’t say how much it would cost to ride the Anacortes Railway in Lincoln, but did say rides would be free “to anyone with proof of Anacortes residency, past or present.” He added, “I understand the significance of this train to all who have and do call Anacortes home …”

In an earlier interview, Anacortes City Councilman Ryan Walters said any sales agreement would have to include protections for the train in the event it didn’t go into service or was taken out of service. Headen Thompson, a son of Tommy Thompson, proposed on Sept. 8 that the city retain first rights to reacquire the train. But Sem said returning the train to Anacortes would create a whole new set of transport and storage costs.

Reviving Thompson’s vision

Thomas G. Thompson Jr. was a mechanical engineer and train aficionado who once restored a locomotive owned and operated by Seattle City Light. In the 1960s, he acquired a retired steam locomotive formerly used to haul ore, restored it, built two early 1900s-style railcars, and operated the train as Anacortes Railway from 1979 until his death in 1999.

His family donated the train to the city in 2012 on the condition it be displayed to the public. In December, after meeting with Iwan, the Thompsons changed the conditions of the donation to allow it to be sold. Thompson’s wife, Anne, and son, Headen, both say they are disappointed that the train has been stored out of public view and say Iwan’s proposal is more in keeping with Thompson’s vision.

“Our family’s only wish is to see this train run again, and inspire and delight future generations to the awesome power and beauty of steam railroads that my father saw,” Headen Thompson said during the Sept. 8 council meeting, reading from a letter he previously submitted to the city. “The train stored in its current building with a proposed window cut in one wall as a static exhibit, in our opinion, offers little inspiration.”

City Councilman Anthony Young said he wanted to honor the Thompson family’s wishes but questioned the process to date. Iwan submitted a purchase offer to the city in July 2019. The Anacortes Museum Advisory Board reviewed the offer two months later and recommended the city accept it, although no written record of the board’s recommendation was presented to the council. And Young argued that the train must first be declared surplus property and then sold to the highest bidder.

“Why are we moving forward tonight with this discussion of a sale of a product that we’ve not (declared as surplus) and most people don’t even know is for sale?,” he asked.

Young said the city regularly surpluses and then advertises city owned property, such as vehicles or office equipment, making them available to the highest bidder. “My concern is we usurped the process this time,” he said. He also said the city needed to get an appraisal of the train, because selling it for below-fair market value would be, he said, a gift of public funds.

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