The Thompson family wants its train back.
Elizabeth Carney, lawyer for the family of the late mechanical engineer Tommy Thompson, asked the city in a Jan. 8 letter to “take the necessary action to ensure the release of the Train to the family no later than February 28, 2021.”
City Attorney Darcy Swetnam, to whom the letter was addressed, invited the Thompson family to participate in the Feb. 22 City Council meeting to discuss the train. Mayor Laurie Gere said the family agreed.
“The Thompson family’s latest request in a letter conveys that they want to city to relinquish the train so they will have the ability to honor their father and husband,” Gere said Monday. “I have not talked to the family; our city attorney has invited them to attend a council meeting so we can have a discussion in an open public meeting.”
Gere said she could not speculate on the likelihood the City Council will vote to return the train to the Thompson family.
The Thompson family donated the train to the city in 2012 with the agreement that the city would display the train so that it could be viewed by the public and would be “cared for and safely stored.” The train is stored in a closed building, out of public view, at The Depot Arts & Community Center. The family also alleges that the building, called a train barn, is “not strongly secured from the elements or the ongoing risk of vandalism and fire.”
The City Council voted 5-2 Oct. 26 to reject offers to purchase the train, which operated in Anacortes from 1979-1999. The council directed Mayor Laurie Gere to return in six months with a plan to display the train so it can be viewed by the public, in keeping with the city’s 2012 agreement with the Thompsons.
But the council’s direction didn’t satisfy Thompson family members who wanted the city to sell the 1902 steam engine and three early 1900s-style passenger cars to train enthusiast Bret Iwan of California. Iwan, a designer and voice actor, proposed operating the train as an amusement ride in the Sacramento-area city of Lincoln. Iwan had offered the city $117,000 for the train. He said at the time that he had not yet secured property or permits for his plan to operate the train.
The nonprofit Anacortes Railway Group advocated keeping the train here, first on display and possibly operating it in the future. Group members brought the train to Anacortes from Seattle, where it was stored after Thompson died in 1999, and took the train out on a test run here in 2016.
To local train enthusiasts, the Tommy Thompson Train is a reminder of the important role the railroad played in the city’s development. To some, it’s also a work of art: Thompson purchased and restored the 1902 steam engine and built the passenger cars. He obtained the use of right of way, laid track and operated the train here as an amusement under the name “Anacortes Railway.”
The Anacortes Railway Group initially proposed operating the train between Ben Root Skate Park and 34th Street. Group president Dave Sem said the nonprofit backed off on that proposal because the council didn’t seem interested in seeing the train operational. Sem said the group’s priority is helping the city live up to the conditions in the 2012 agreement.
“If there’s a chance of having a running train, that would be the best thing for the train, we all know that,” Sem said at the time. With the help of volunteers, he said, “I know this could be done.”
Sem recommended the council reject Iwan’s proposal to purchase the train and instead establish a community task group to get the train on display. Gere said Monday she is working on a plan for the display.
Councilman Jeremy Carter wants the train to stay in Anacortes.
“After all this time … I have not received one email, not one letter, not a single phone call that wants the city to sell the train,” Carter said at the Oct. 26 council meeting. “At times, the City Council has made decisions based on how they feel the people want us to vote, but in this case, it is very clear that not a single person has reached out to say they want us to sell the train, except for the family that gave it to Anacortes.”
Councilman Ryan Walters, who supported selling the train, warned that the train would not be operational under city ownership.
“It was a great accomplishment that it ever ran, but the person who ran it is no more, and we won’t be running it,” he said at the time. “I think that a lot of people in the community seem to think there’s some hope that we could run it again and that is just not realistic. … There are more important things we need to provide for in the city of Anacortes.”