Locomotive 223 could be on a one-way track out of town.

The rusty steam engine, which has been sitting unprotected behind the old Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City since 1979, is on the verge of total collapse without substantial rehabilitation work, say Utah State Division of History officials. It appears the best opportunity for rehabilitating the engine is in Chama, N.M.The Board of State History has put off a final decision on the engine's fate to Nov. 16. That will provide at least one Utah group with a final opportunity to keep the narrow gauge engine in the state.

Friday, the division staff presented a recommendation that the board accept a proposal from the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission based in Chama. The group runs an operational old-time railroad between Antonito, Colo., and Chama. A bi-state commission oversees the project, which is heavily involved in restoring vintage locomotives and rail cars.

Of the six proposals presented, the staff felt the Cumbres proposal was strongest. Representatives of the group said $10,000 is immediately available to stabilize the engine and transport it to a rehabilitation facility in Chama.

Representatives of the Utah Railway Historical Society said they have raised $3,000 toward acquiring and rehabilitating the engine and asked for an opportunity to provide a more detailed proposal for board consideration.

The group's preliminary proposal was ranked fourth by the staff behind the Cumbres plan and proposals submitted by Shop Services Inc. in Iowa and The Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction. There were no representatives from those groups at Friday's meeting.

The board instructed staff to meet with the Utah attorney general's office and Salt Lake City officials to ensure all legal matters regarding ownership of the engine are resolved by the Nov. 16 meeting. Staff was also directed to make copies of the full proposals from the four groups available to board members for review, including any new information that might be provided during the interim.

Locomotive 223 was originally given to Salt Lake City by the Denver Rio Grande Railroad and was displayed in Liberty Park for several years. In 1979, it was donated to the Utah Historical Society and moved to its present location. Originally built in 1890, it was believed to have operated in the mining areas of eastern Utah in the late 1880s. Records indicate, however, that No. 223 never operated in Utah but was used extensively in western Colorado.

The division is not interested in the restoration project because of costs. A study commissioned last year indicated it would take at least $88,000 to cosmetically restore the engine and prevent further deterioration. The study estimated putting the engine in working order would cost up to $1 million.

The division has found little interest among legislators to fund the restoration project and has opted to find the engine a new home, in Utah if possible, but outside if necessary to ensure it will be properly restored and maintained for public display.