REFLECTIONS of Stafford County's past come in all shapes and sizes--from large tracts of virgin timber on the Crow's Nest peninsula to tiny pieces of glass sifted from the dirt at George Washington's boyhood home at Ferry Farm.

And now that list may include "Dinky," a vintage steam engine that was part of the county's mining industry almost a hundred years ago and may soon finds its way back onto Stafford soil.

For the time being, Dinky is a rusted heap of metal sitting in the woods off U.S. 17 near Bealeton. Its owner is Jim Baird, a collector and a member of the Rappahannock Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and a Fauquier County group called the Antique Equipment Club.

The engine probably was built in the 1890s by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. It was called a "dinky," a name applied to a variety of miniature engines. This one is roughly 10 feet tall and 20 feet long. It weighs about 12 tons. And it has not been seen in Stafford for more than 30 years.

Baird acquired Dinky in the 1980s from a scrap yard near Richmond. He said he was told the locomotive had been buried and was uncovered during a construction project along U.S. 1 north of Fredericksburg.

That all fits with Dinky's life history, which I'll explain in a moment.

The important point now is that Baird says he would like to see the engine cosmetically restored and put on display. And he says if Stafford County can provide a safe environment, he would be willing to sell the antique locomotive at "minimal cost."

"This is great news," said David Gayle of the county staff last week after learning that Dinky had been located. Gayle is the assistant director of legislative affairs, and has sought for several years to recover the missing locomotive.

By the next day, he had discussed the matter with other Stafford officials and contacted Baird at his Bealeton home.

"We're excited and very interested," Gayle said. "We're looking forward to seeing the engine and having a conversation with Mr. Baird. I think we're willing to look at all of the options."

Gayle was unable to join railroad historian Larry Duffee on an earlier visit to view the locomotive. I joined county historian Jerrilynn Eby MacGregor, her husband, Rick, and Duffee on the first trip.

Duffee explained that the Dinky was called a saddle-tank locomotive because it carried its water in a tank mounted on top of the engine itself.

Such a design allowed for a compact locomotive ideal for industrial purposes, and the weight of the water helped the engine gain traction on the rails.

"The locomotive would have burned coal, which would have been carried in a small bunker at the rear of the engine," said Duffee.

"There typically would have been two employees involved in the operation--an engineer, who would have operated the throttle and brakes, and a fireman, who would have shoveled coal and added water to the engine as needed to maintain steam pressure."

The engine in Baird's backyard is missing both its water tank and its smokestack. Baird does have the saddle-shaped water tank stored nearby, but it appears to have been damaged at some point--perhaps during the excavation process in 1968 when the engine was recovered from a shallow grave along U.S. 1.

"I remember seeing the locomotive by the road when I was riding by on the school bus," recalled Rick MacGregor. "I must have been about 12 years old. And I remember the tank being mashed in on one side even then."

Despite its small size, Dinky was powerful. Newspaper clippings recount how the engine could pull three carloads of pyrite ore--material so heavy that a wheelbarrow load weighed more than 700 pounds.

The engine shuttled back and forth on a narrow-gauge line between a mine shaft on upper Austin Run near present-day Hampton Oaks subdivision and Coal Landing on Aquia Creek.

The tracks ran southeast from the mine, coming out to U.S. 1 at the southern end of Bell's Hill Road (State Route 631), crossing U.S. 1 at the Wayside and following the north side of Coal Landing Road. Longtime residents can remember hearing the little engine's steam whistle for miles.

Dinky hauled pyrite ore down to the landing for shipping, then returned with a load of coal to fire three boilers at the mine shaft. Pyrite, used mostly in the manufacture of certain acids, was mined by the Austin Run Mining Co. and, later, by Old Dominion Sulphur Corp.

The mining operation went out of business shortly after World War I. The engine was sold along with other equipment, but it was too heavy to move.

Apparently about 1919, when highway workmen were building a road across U.S. 1 near Stafford Wayside, they pushed the little locomotive into a dry creek bed and buried it.

There it remained for almost 50 years until March 1968, when a sewer-line construction crew uncovered the engine and created quite a scene, according to newspaper reports, as a crane and two front-end loaders hoisted Dinky from the ground.

The engine was soon moved to an antiques store, Austin Farms Flea Shop, about half a mile to the north. It stayed there awhile, but eventually was transported to the G.L. Howard scrap yard in an area called Rockville near Richmond.

In 1982, former county supervisor Philip Hornung saw the locomotive at the scrap yard, but there was not enough interest to launch a restoration project at that time. When Gayle contacted the scrap yard in 2001, he was told that Dinky was no longer there.

Which brings us back to Jim Baird in Bealeton.

"I remember just calling around to some scrap yards to see what they had," he said. "And I found someone who said, 'We have an old dinky engine out back.'

"So I went and checked it out. The idea was to fix it up for display."

The engine is in pretty sad shape at present. But both Baird and Duffee said it could be restored cosmetically for display purposes. There would be some heavy lifting involved, plus some metal work, paint, wood trim and a new smokestack. The water tank also would need some major repairs.

Baird estimated the cost of restoration work for display purposes at $5,000 to $10,000.

However, he said that with the aid of volunteer work, donations and possible grants, the real cost could be as little as $1,000.

"I believe the dinky is worth preserving, restoring and putting on display as a reminder to Stafford residents of the county's rich--and little-appreciated--industrial past," said Duffee, who lives in White Oak.

"To me, the dinky is emblematic of all of the small family-operated lumber mills, logging operations, small-scale quarries and mines that used to dot the landscape and provide local families with a means of existence.

"In our modern, suburban lives we often are unaware of the history we drive past, and we need to be reminded of how people lived and worked in the very places now covered with modern development. A restored dinky on display would be a terrific means of telling some wonderful stories of the way people used to live and work in Stafford."

To reach LEE WOOLF: 540/720-5470 lwoolf@freelancestar.com

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