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Roots of Motive Power
Volunteer Organization preserves and stores steam and diesel powered equipment

By Kurt Glaeseman

We in the timber industry are fascinated with accounts of Big Trees and Old Growth, of shrewd investors and sturdy loggers. But who remembers the nuts and bolts of the behemoth machinery that provided the necessary mechanical advantage to turn a country’s hunger for wood into an affordable reality?

Welcome to Roots of Motive Power! The all-volunteer, nonprofit organization was founded in 1982 to preserve and restore steam and diesel powered equipment used in the Pacific Northwest logging industry from the 1850s to the present. Up Close The physical collection of stored and restored metal monsters in Willits, Calif., is staggering. History buffs, loggers, mechanics, engineers, and the just-plaincurious flock to the Mendocino County Fairgrounds for guided tours, photo ops, a ride on the fairground train, and the chance simply to touch a machine that made a big difference a century ago.

More than just bright paint and revitalized parts, the machines often come with a solid pedigree. Academic research on the machinery is extensive, and a visitor who wants the history of a particular piece can chat with a tour guide, do preliminary research on-site, or visit the user-friendly Internet site at

Below is just a portion of the entry for a 1918 Lima Locomotive Works Shay steam locomotive: “The Shay is a 50-ton, two-stroke model, Class B 50-2, built in May, 1918 (during World War I) for the North Bend Mill and Lumber Company of North Bend, Oregon. The locomotive was acquired by Robert Dollar Lumber Company in 1946 to serve its railroad logging operation near Glendale, Oregon. Robert Dollar once operated two Shay locomotives at his sawmill and logging operations at Usal, in northern Mendocino County, California, around 1900.”

And the stats include the machine’s builder, class, cylinders, driving wheels, previous owners, and more. That’s a pretty comprehensive bio for any piece of machinery. Obviously someone cares.

Driving Force
One of the founding and driving forces behind Roots of Motive Power is Chris Baldo, a Cal Berkeley Forestry major who started working for Weyerhaeuser in southwest Washington in the 1970s. In 1976, he and fellow graduate, Bruce Burton, tried logging near Willits, when, as he puts it, there were too many loggers for the amount of woods. They regrouped and tried a new focus on sawmilling. They established Willits Redwood Company, a small sawmill aimed at specific niche marketing.

Both Chris and Bruce are licensed Foresters, but they aren’t above driving a forklift or repairing a break at the mill. They cut a lot of special lumber — dimension and length. “We’ll never out-produce anyone,” laughs Chris, “so we squeeze the log for everything it’s worth.” In his spare time, Chris seeks out, researches, and buys mechanical candidates for the Roots of Motive Power collection.

“I have an interest in the industry and in those guys who came before us,” admits Chris. “I see the pictures, and I want more. I enjoy doing the research and the restoration.”

The research extends way beyond machinery. Members of the Roots of Motive Power receive a handsome, professionally published newsletter, containing texts and photos of a targeted logging-lumber family or company.

Machine Festival
Several times each year, the Roots’ collection is spotlighted for local events. One of the most popular is the “Roots of Motive Power Festival” that takes place in September, on the weekend after Labor Day. You can expect to see locomotives and other railroad equipment, steam shovels, steam rollers, and steam donkeys. And you won’t go away hungry: The Annual Appreciation Barbecue has pigs roasting on a spit, with all the trimmings available.

Education on old steam machinery could hardly be more palatable. President Baldo succinctly states a basic tenet of the organization: “The Roots Board of Directors strongly feels that we must continue to make this investment in developing and maintaining the steam engineering skills of our volunteers. At this point in history, it is the culture of steam that is disappearing in this country, not the steam machinery itself.”

Thanks to Baldo and the Roots of Motive Power, researched history and renovated models will keep the legacy of pioneer machinery alive for future generations who are fascinated by the nuts-and-bolts of the history of the Pacific Northwest.