Tacoma logging museum on the brink of closure

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TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — For 47 years, the Camp 6 Logging Museum at Point Defiance Park has kept a window open on Western Washington’s steam-logging history.

But that window soon might close.

The camp and its railroad shut down for the winter in December as usual might not reopen in April unless its owner can find some entity with the money to maintain and operate them.

“We may have to close it,” said Tom Murray, a managing director for the Northwest Forest Industries Museum, which established the logging camp in 1964.

Options are few. Metro Parks Tacoma could take over the camp, if it had the money, or a white knight with money and a love of old trains and logging might be found.

Neither seems probable.

The camp several bunk houses, a short-haul train and pieces of historic logging equipment sits on 14 acres leased from Metro Parks Tacoma.

It’s become an iconic part of Tacoma’s park life.

For many years, the camp drew enough visitors to cover operation costs, insurance and even some maintenance on the equipment. Its Santa Train in December has been a hit.

But more recently the camp has taken a financial hit as grants dried up, timber companies cut their support, competition from other Tacoma museums grew, and park attendance fell.

In the camp’s best year since 1980, it made $27,000. Last year, income from train rides and the camp’s small souvenir-book store fell to $11,000, down 40 percent from the year before. Ridership fell to 3,600 last year from 5,982 in 2009.

Reopening the camp in April would cost $4,000 for insurance alone.

“In a nutshell, we didn’t make enough money to stay in business,” said Rick Bacon, who has been associated with the operation and managed it as a volunteer for 22 years. “There is nothing in the bank and no money coming.”

If the camp doesn’t reopen, it’ll be hard to take, Bacon admitted. He also plays Santa Claus on the Santa Train each December. With his white beard, suspenders, jeans, boots and engineer’s hat, he was well-known to visitors.

“I tried to do the best I could with the resources available,” said Bacon, 60. “I love this place. I love it so much I bought a house a block away.”

Closure is not the direction anyone wants to go, Murray said, but the camp and its equipment are deteriorating and need an infusion of cash.

Late last year, the board of the Western Forest Industries Museum voted to end its management contract with the Tacoma chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

The museum also operates the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad out of Mineral. The society operated Camp 6 for more than 20 years, and its members have been involved with it since it was built.

Bacon will oversee the camp while the museum board decides the camp’s future, Murray said. It wants to preserve the camp’s tracks, trains and exhibits, but maintaining them would be expensive and needs to be ongoing, he said.

Plus, Murray said, it would take “a couple million dollars or so to expand the railroad and rebuild the steam locomotive. It’s been in the shed the last couple years, and it would a few hundred thousands dollars just to put the steam locomotive’s boilers back in running order.”

The camp’s one-car train now is pulled by a gasoline-and-propane-powered engine that doesn’t provide the same sound and atmosphere of a steam engine, he said.

“It’s not much of a ride,” Murray admitted.

When Camp 6 opened, it competed against much smaller railroad ride attractions. Today the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad is an $800,000-a-year operation. The Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie is a bit bigger.

Both have miles of track to run their steam trains, Bacon said.

Camp 6’s train ride called the Point Defiance, Quinault & Klickitat Railroad is only 3,000 feet long.

Plus it takes visitors past replicas of logging sites where equipment is rusting away. Also needing repairs are the wooden bunkhouses and the deteriorating rail cars on which they sit.

“Camp 6 has had its heyday,” Bacon said, adding that his goal now is to make sure that historical records at the camp get to the proper repositories in the state.

“I feel a moral obligation if Camp 6 is dismantled to make sure it is done correctly,” he said.

Losing the Camp 6 contract has caused no ill feeling toward the museum, said Edward M. Berntsen, president of the Tacoma chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

“We recognize that going a different direction with Camp 6 displays may be appropriate at this time,” he said. “We look forward to working with the museum.”

Finding grants to maintain Camp 6 has been difficult, Bernsten said.

“We’ve continued to do the best we can,” he said. “I’m optimistic that the museum will develop and implement the best possible solution to Camp 6, but I don’t know what that is.”

Camp 6 is an independent entity that leases land at Point Defiance Park from Metro Parks.

As for Metro Parks taking over the exhibit, “It’s really too soon for us to have a sense of what the next steps will be,” said parks spokeswoman Nancy Johnson.

She noted that Metro Parks last year needed a successful levy election just to sustain existing services.

Still, the parks district is working with the camp’s owner, said Shon Slvia, director of recreation and community services.

“Through our Point Defiance Park master-planning process,” Silva said, “we will also work with the community to determine the best use of the site, both for the immediately future and the long term as well.”

Though Camp 6 is closed and no train is running now, the site is open during park hours to visitors. They can see the camp’s bunkhouses and some of the equipment, including an old steam donkey engine that once dragged logs from the woods.

The Tacoma chapter is hosting the 2011 national convention of the National Railway Historical Society in late June. A tour of Camp 6 was to be on the agenda. The tour, however, has been canceled.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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