Lake Stevens' Locomotive Legend A Reality -- Navy Finds Logging Engine That Sank In Early 1900S

EVERETT - On call 24 hours a day, the team of Navy divers and demolition experts works underwater to find bombs, mines, downed military aircraft and sunken naval ships.

The unit, based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, can be dispatched anywhere in the world to find and deactivate hidden explosive devices - even under the ocean floor.

Recently the unit - Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 17 - got an offbeat training assignment. Its mission: to find out whether there's a locomotive at the bottom of Lake Stevens.

Using specialized equipment, the team penetrated 35 feet of water and 14 feet of mud to find a logging-train locomotive that has been at the bottom of the lake since the early 1900s.

Locomotives were used to bring logs into the lake at Rucker Mill, which dominated the lake from 1902 to 1927, said Gayle Whitsell, Lake Stevens Historical Society president.

According to local history, sometime between 1911 and 1915, the brakes gave out on a logging-train locomotive and it rolled into the lake and sank.

But in recent years, nobody could find the locomotive despite the efforts of several teams of divers who searched in the early 1980s.

A few older residents around Lake Stevens say the engine was visible under the water decades ago, Whitsell said. But newer neighbors were skeptical, especially after divers found nothing during the 1980s searches.

Now, many of the old-timers are smiling because their often-chided beliefs were proved true, Whitsell said.

"They feel vindicated," he said. "It's kind of nice to have a story everybody wouldn't believe become reality."

Nobody could prove the locomotive was down there until Navy Chief Warrant Officer Dan Nohrden, a Lake Stevens resident, suggested to his commander that the lake be used as a training site for the Navy ordnance-disposal team.

The team found the locomotive in about 40 minutes. The outline of the 25- to 30-foot-long locomotive, lying on its side, showed clearly on sonar.

The team trains around the Northwest to practice diving and learn about new technology. It uses sonar equipment, metal detectors and three to eight Global Positioning System satellites to pinpoint targets around the Earth.

"You could find a dime down there if you look for it," Nohrden said.

Previous dive teams did not find the locomotive because they didn't have proper equipment, he said.

"It's just a muddy bottom. You've got to realize we found this thing 14 feet under the surface," said Nohrden, who was in charge of the 23 people who participated in the training at Lake Stevens, which is east of Everett.

Although the historical society has the desire and the team has the capability, the Navy probably will not pull the locomotive back up, Nohrden said. The team would salvage the locomotive if ordered to but probably won't because it is not a military vehicle.

Lying under 14 feet of mud should have preserved the locomotive well, Nohrden added.

Whitsell said he is trying to determine who has the legal rights to the engine and what environmental concerns might come up if it is raised. The historical society has a few other projects to complete before it can concentrate on pulling the locomotive out of the water, he said.

Nohrden's team trains as far south as the Northern California Coast and in places such as Alaska, Hawaii and Japan.

"They're always excited to find anything of value or interest. I'm glad we didn't find bodies," he said, referring to a rumor that three bodies were preserved at the bottom of the lake.

Other than the locomotive, the team found only trash and sunken logs.