They traveled here from Connecticut in the frozen darkness before dawn.
"To save it," said Scott Dorman, "save it from the scrap torch."
Dorman and fellow volunteers from the Friends of the Valley Railroad, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the "golden age of railroads," came to Peabody early yesterday for a 1940s-era H.K. Porter steam locomotive.
They found it on a small section of tracks in the overflow parking lot beside the city's public works headquarters on Farm Avenue. Its future was put up in the air this past fall when Dick Carnevale, the department's former director who brought the locomotive to Peabody, resigned.
The Friends of the Valley Railroad intend to finish a restoration Carnevale started. The group bought the locomotive from him to take back and display at Essex Steam Train & Riverboat, a tourist attraction with a working rail yard in Essex, Conn.
"This is going to a home where we know how to put this back together," said Brendan Matthews, an organization member.
Essex Steam Train & Riverboat has two active steam locomotives and a third expected to be "under steam" by 2011. The initial plan for the Peabody train is to raise enough money for a full cosmetic restoration. Her future beyond that hinges on fundraising.
"If we get it there and we can raise more money, we may try to fire her up someday," Matthews said.
The organization learned the train was available after North Shore residents forwarded them a newspaper article about it, and it also became the subject of a discussion on Internet sites for railroad enthusiasts.
Matthews said it will cost about $20,000 to get the locomotive to "display quality." That amount includes purchasing the train for $8,500 and between $4,000 to $5,000 to transport it, he said.
The first major phase of the move began yesterday when a massive crane loaded pieces of the locomotive, including a 2-ton water tank, onto a flatbed trailer. Early next week, the 40-ton engine is expected to be rolled onto a trailer for its trip south.
The locomotive passed its useful life in Pennsylvania, Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia and Steamtown at Bellows Falls, Vt. By the time it arrived in Peabody two years ago from a Newbury dump, it was rusting and partly disassembled.
Carnevale hoped to salvage it with grant funding and help from a group of local railroad buffs willing to lend their expertise.
"She's actually come a long way from where (Carnevale) got her," Matthews said, referring to a fresh paint job and the restoration of the water and oil tank.
Mayor Michael Bonfanti supported Carnevale's efforts, primarily because the work didn't cost the city anything and Carnevale touted it as a future tourist attraction if a spot could be found for it downtown.
But when Carnevale resigned in late October, the city gave him 60 days to move it off city property.
"It's too bad it didn't work out," Bonfanti said yesterday. "But (the train) is Dick's private property and with him no longer being here, it was time for it to go."
Carnevale declined to comment when reached by phone yesterday.
Mayor Peter Torigian hired him as public services director in 1994. His resignation coincided with Bonfanti announcing the police would investigate "rumors" involving the Public Services Department. But Bonfanti did not link the rumors and investigation to Carnevale's departure.
Bonfanti said yesterday that the inquiry has not turned up any evidence of impropriety.
The locomotive was likely built in the 1920s and converted from coal- to oil-fired in the decades following, Matthews said. He and the volunteers who joined him view their job as preserving an endangered piece of the country's history.
For the locomotive, it's a happy ending worthy of the holiday season. It's poised to return to an active rail yard for the first time since the 1960s, Matthews said.
"If some work is done," organization member Kevin Nairn said, "we can put this back together and people can enjoy it."