Dunsmuir takes a first step toward unlocking old Mallet Shed's future

A pillar of railroad history fallen victim to years of neglect and vandalism, the old engine house in Dunsmuir known as the Mallet Shed stands by the tracks awaiting its destiny.

How long it must continue to wait is uncertain, but Dunsmuir City Council took the first step toward unlocking its future Thursday when Mayor Josh Spurlock announced a decision made in closed session to remove hazardous materials from the building as soon as possible.

Ideas for possible uses for the dilapidated building, including a recent offer of a historic rail car donation, and the desire to see the Mallet Shed restored are bubbling up in the Dunsmuir community. Before any plans for renovation or demolition can move forward, hazardous materials must be removed.

Former interim city manager Randy Johnsen brought up the city-owned building during the council’s Dec. 3 meeting, saying, “The city needs to find a use for it or tear it down.”

Members of the audience bristled at the notion of demolishing the shed and stood up for what they referred to as one of the most historic buildings in town.

The massive structure referred to as “an eyesore with a skin full of asbestos” by Dunsmuir resident and former mayor Peter Arth, was purchased by the city, but sits on Union Pacific property adjacent to Sacramento Avenue.

But several Dunsmuir residents, including Arth, want to see the building restored and preserved.

“I am a strong supporter of preserving and enhancing Dunsmuir's Historic District, and the railroad history it embraces,” Arth said.

Engine house and bus shed

The Mallet Shed got its name from the 125 foot Mallet-type articulated steam locomotives it housed. It was built in 1939 and used until some time in the 1950s, according to Dunsmuir railfan Bruce Petty.

“That’s right around the same time they put the larger turntable in,” Petty said, explaining how the engines could be flipped around on the turntable and moved into the shed. “The big doors on the end are the only roundhouse doors still around,” he said, explaining how they came from a roundhouse in El Paso and were added to the building in Dunsmuir post-construction.

“It was used by the railroad until some time in the 1950s, when the schools took it over to use as their bus shed,” Petty said. After that, the City of Dunsmuir bought the building and assumed responsibility for maintaining it.

The key problems to be remediated are the roof – which contains so many gaps, splits and holes it could hardly serve to protect anything therein – and the asbestos.

Petty explained that the building was made from old rails that were welded together and coated with transite, a mix of concrete and asbestos.

Even the holes in the roof have a story behind them, according to Petty.

“The reason the roof is like that is because of the sulphur in the old steam engines,” he said. “It ate away at the roof.”

Ideas for shed’s future

Over the years, various efforts have been made to breathe new life into the rapidly deteriorating building. Petty explored the possibility of turning it into a sort of extension of the railroad depot museum, but said people started to lose interest in the project around the time of the Cantara Spill in 1991.

Gary Benson of Benson Roofing in Dunsmuir has been interested in leasing the Mallet Shed for years.

“I’ve been talking to at least the last three city managers, trying to get something to happen,” Benson said.

He wants to use the building to store cranes and other large equipment for his roofing business.

Another opportunity that’s presented itself recently involves using the Mallet Shed to store an 1880s era historic rail car named “Shasta.”

Bruce Shoemaker of Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture in Weed said he was recently re-approached by the California State Rail Museum with an offer to donate the rail car.

“They want it gone asap and it is in imminent danger of being scrapped,” Shoemaker said. “This would be a shame as it is a really historic car that would be perfect for a collection in Dunsmuir.”

He said “Shasta” is a Southern Pacific wooden Pullman business car that was based in Dunsmuir from 1900 to the 1930s.

Shoemaker said the car needs some work and is in such a fragile state that storing it outdoors at Black Butte during the winter might be detrimental to its condition. “It really needs to be stored indoors,” he said.

“So, ideally the Mallet Shed in Dunsmuir, if remediated and fixed up, would be perfect for it,” Shoemaker said. “We (BBCRC) could play a facilitating role, but it is beyond our capacity to take the Mallet Shed project on. It really needs to be a Dunsmuir based group.”

Hazardous material removal

Being a professional roofer, Benson said he thinks he’s in the best position to fix it up. “I could probably address the asbestos issue and fix the roof better than anybody, but the city attorney decided to remove the asbestos,” he said, referring to the decision made in closed session on Feb. 4.

City councilor Bryce Craig explained that having anyone other than a licensed asbestos removal contractor clean the place out would be too much of a liability for the city.

“The council has not officially made any plans for the engine house,” Craig said. “But in my opinion, I want to look at ways to put the building to use. Addressing the hazardous materials was top priority to remove liability.”

Although the city owns the building, the Mallet Shed sits on Union Pacific property, which presents another level environmental and accessibility issues.

“Even if the asbestos is removed, the railroad could have been dumping toxic materials into the ground,” Craig said. “If the city thought we could responsibly get a tenant in there, we would.”

When asked about the historic rail car donation, Craig said, “I’m really hesitant to say that parking an old train in there could never be a possibility.”

For now, the city is taking one step at a time and focusing first on removing the hazardous material from the shed.

Between rails and river

“A lot of old timers around here really want to see something done with that building,” Benson said.

Arth referred to the community effort to upgrade the Amtrak terminal years ago, and questioned why that energy hasn’t continued on to the Mallet Shed.

“At one point, the City of Dunsmuir worked with our local railfans to upgrade the Amtrak terminal so it would not be lost. It was a big success. At that time the advocates contemplated a ‘Phase II’ that would restore the area around our terminal and rail yard. Grassy areas with benches for train watchers, pavers and restoration of the original fountain to its location next to the terminal. Take advantage of the nexus between the rails and the river, which flows so close you can fish out of the Mallet Shed,” Arth said.