Milwaukee Road 261
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Milwaukee Road 261 in preparation for an excursion trip in September 2008.
Milwaukee Road 261 is a 4-8-4 "Northern" type steam locomotive built by the American Locomotive Company, (ALCO), in Schenectady, New York in July 1944 for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. It was used for heavy mainline freight work until being retired by the railroad in 1954. Instead of being cut up for scrap, the 261 was preserved and donated to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1958. Today the locomotive is owned, operated, and maintained by Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization Friends of the 261, which runs seasonal excursion trains using the 261. The steam engine, restored in 1993, has logged more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km) under its own power since that time.
Built by the American Locomotive Company in July 1944, the 261 was originally operated by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, which was also known as the Milwaukee Road. The locomotive, weighing 460,000 pounds (210,000 kg), is rated at a maximum of 4,500 hp (3,400 kW) and maximum speed of 100 mph (160 km/h), is coal fueled. It had a 3 chime whistle and airhorn mounted on it. It operated with the railroad until retiring in 1954, and eventually donated to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. As the new museum's first acquisition, 261 was moved to the museum site in 1958.
In 1991, the newly formed "North Star Rail" selected 261 for restoration for mainline excursions. It was selected for a variety of reasons. The engine was large enough to handle the expected trains at track speed. It featured several modern features for a steam locomotive, including easier to maintain roller bearings. It also already had its asbestos lagging removed, which is very expensive to remove for environmental and safety reasons. Finally, 261's relatively short 10 year service life meant that the engine's boiler is more pristine, meaning it would take less work to rebuild the engine.
North Star Rail and the National Railroad Museum came to an agreement in November 1991 for a ten-year lease (which was later renewed ten years later). 261 was moved from Green Bay to Minneapolis to the GE shops at Humboldt Yard in September 1992. There, a full-time staff rebuilt the engine. Work progressed quickly, allowing for a hydrostatic test in June 1993, a test fireup in July, and the eventual restoration completion in September. After passing the FRA inspection on September 14, the engine deadheaded over Wisconsin Central in time for its first public excursions on September 18–19, 1993. The engine later returned to its new home at the leased Burlington Northern Minneapolis Junction.
The following year, 261 had an extensive season including excursions on the Wisconsin Central Railroad and the Twin Cities and Western Railroad. Notable events included "Chocolate City Days" excusions, campaign trains, a movie shoot painted as "Lackawanna 1661", running over CSX tracks for the famed "New River Train", and a wrap up celebrating the engine's 50th birthday.
The engine participated in the Steamtown National Historic Site's grand opening in July 1995. Over five days, 261 deadheaded from Minneapolis to Scranton, Pennsylvania. The locomotive stayed in Scranton for the next year pulling numerous excursions, including rare mileage trips, a rare snow plow run, and the engine's first steam doubleheader with Susquehanna 142. A Hancock 3 chime whistle was temporarily added to the locomotive and then replaced with an AT&SF 6 chime whistle, which it remains with today, but still also keeping its original non-Hancock 3 chime whistle and airhorn. 261 returned to the Midwest after almost a year at Steamtown. On its way home, the engine made its first runs over the newly formed Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. It pulled a few sets of excursions in 1997 and 1998 over BNSF and TC&W trackage.
The year of 1998 presented 261 on its biggest assignment yet as it was the first steam engine to pull BNSF's Employee Appreciation Special. The engine led a BNSF locomotive and a dozen of BNSF's business fleet around the upper Midwest portion of the BNSF's route. This brought the engine back to Chicago before heading north to North Dakota and Montana, then through Minneapolis into Iowa before the EAS concluded at Topeka Railroad Days. 261 ended the 1998 operating season after a few more days on BNSF tracks.
The 1999 season was short with a weekend excursion in May from Minneapolis to Duluth along with runs on the Lake Superior Railroad Museum's tracks, along with another excursion in September. The year 2000 saw 261 leading excursions out of places like Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City. The engine also led an AAPRCO special on August 29 to Duluth. The engine then led a long circle trip over the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railroad as well as the North Shore Railroad System before heading back home. The 2001 season had excursions out of Minneapolis and Montevideo over BNSF and TC&W tracks during June and July, in a complete match of Hiawatha passenger cars. The next year, 261 pulled an almost matching consist between Minneapolis and Chicago. At this point, insurance rates were skyrocketing due to outside events as well as new FRA guidelines. The Friends of the 261 had an insurance policy to run through 2002, making these trips among the last time that the group could afford to have 261 run solo.
In the following months, some major changes were made to the Friends of the 261's operations. With insurance being too high to charge reasonable ticket prices, the group decided to team up with Amtrak. Amtrak is self insured, so the added cost of excursion insurance was much less. However, Amtrak requires that all equipment meet Amtrak certification. The engine became the second steam engine to become Amtrak certified, and the Friends of the 261 began to buy or rebuild coaches that would meet Amtrak specifications. The first team up with Amtrak occurred in October 2003 with the engine's return to old Milwaukee Road tracks between Minneapolis to Winona, Minnesota. These trips have been repeated each year since (this was the case until 2011?).
In June 2004, the engine made its first return visit to Milwaukee since being restored, overnighting on its way to Chicago to participate in the Grand Excursion, an approximate reenactment of the original Grand Excursion of 1854. It departed from Chicago, arriving in Rock Island, Illinois to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first railroad to reach the Mississippi River. During the Grand Excursion, 261 made day trips to Savanna, Illinois over the Iowa, Chicago and Eastern Railroad, and to Bureau Junction, Illinois on Iowa Interstate Railroad, current owner/operator of the first railroad line to the Mississippi. The train then traveled north along IC&E rails near the Mississippi River, making overnight stops at Dubuque, Iowa and La Crosse, Wisconsin. The final leg up to the Twin Cities operated in Wisconsin on BNSF trackage.
261 ran an excursion from Minneapolis to Duluth via BNSF trackage in both 2005 and 2007.
Three June 2006 excursions were launched from Milwaukee: a dinner train in Friday 23 to Sturtevant, Wisconsin, and Saturday & Sunday excursions (24th & 25th) to Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. For these runs, the train was turned at New Lisbon. These excursions would be repeated in August 2008.
In September 2006, 261 and its train visited Rock Island, Illinois as part of RiverWay 2006, a Quad Cities celebration of the 150th anniversary of the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River in 1856. As part of the festivities, 261's train was coupled to a pair of Chinese-built QJ 2-10-2 steam locomotives for a trip to Homestead, Iowa, on September 15, 2006. The next day, 261 was added to run a "triple-header" from Rock Island to Bureau Junction, Illinois; then, on the following day, the QJs pulled the train, without 261, to Muscatine, Iowa, and back. Diesels were not used on any of these excursions.
In September 2007, Canadian Pacific 2816 and 261 reunited for another doubleheader to Winona. No diesels or water cars were used on the trip. The Friends of the 261 had helped the Canadian Pacific Railway plan 2816's return to the United States, as well as providing half of the consist 2816 led.
In May 2008, 261 was featured on a photo charter on the TC&W railroad. Following this, the engine was moved to Chicago for filming in Public Enemies, a movie based on the life of John Dillinger and starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Though 261 was built ten years after Dillinger died, the engine did fit the bill for a steam engine that could be filmed at Chicago Union Station. The engine's final excursion before the required Federal Railway Administration's "15 year inspection" for 261 was a run in September 2008 on Canadian Pacific's ex-Milwaukee Road line from Minneapolis to Winona with a return on BNSF's ex-Burlington line from La Crosse to Minneapolis. Following the engine being pulled from service, The Friends quickly began a rebuild to the engine.
Acquisition from the National Railroad Museum
In 2009, the work on 261 was halted to concentrate efforts on Southern Pacific 4449. The famed "Daylight" was to participate in TrainFestival 2009, and the Friends of the 261 played a major part in the engine being able to participate. The group provided several passenger cars for 4449's excursion from Portland, Oregon, to Owosso, Michigan, that started on July 3, 2009, as well as TrainFestival 2009. After being away for three months, the 4449 arrived in Portland on October 20, 2009.
In November 2009, the Friends of the 261 and the National Railroad Museum had problems with negotiations over lease agreements. The museum was asking too much for the Friends to pay, especially while in the middle of a large overhaul. The Friends of the 261 decided to end the lease with the National Railroad Museum citing the high costs, and began looking for another locomotive to restore.
In mid-January 2010, the engine was found on the website of Sterling Rail, a rail equipment broker, stating that there was a sale pending. The engine was supposedly to be sold to a California-based collector, who would have potentially let the Friends overhaul and operate the 261; however, the transaction was never completed. At the time, Steve Sandberg, CEO of the organization, said he was engaged in talks with other organizations about leasing a different engine. In an e-mail dated November 17, 2009, he informed the National Railroad Museum his organization had decided to discontinue operating #261, according to Michael E. Telzrow, executive director of the National Railroad Museum. Per the terms of their agreement, the Friends of the 261 would be responsible for returning the locomotive to the Museum. The Friends of the 261 finally were able to purchase the locomotive in May, 2010 for $225,000, keeping it in Minneapolis and returning it to operation upon its rebuild.
2013 and Beyond
On September 29, 2012, 261 was test fired and ran under its own power once again.
In April 2013, it successfully operated a test train on the Twin Cities and Western Railroad. It ran normally from Minneapolis, and then operated tender-first back to Minneapolis.
On May 11, 2013 (National Train Day), 261 ran on an excursion north from Minneapolis to Duluth, where it met Soo Line 2719 for the first time. 261 stayed in Duluth overnight and had a photo shoot with 2719. On May 12, 261 returned to Minneapolis. Amtrak P42DC #17 joined 261 for this trip.
On October 12, 2013 261 made a round trip fall color excursion to Willmar, Minnesota. On October 13, 2013, 261 made a second round trip excursion to Boylston, Wisconsin. Amtrak P40DC #824 joined 261 for these trips.
On September 27, 2014, Milwaukee Road 261 ran on a round trip Fall Colors Excursion to Duluth, Minnesota, returning to Minneapolis on September 28. The excursion traveled on BNSF's Hinckley Subdivision. Amtrak P42DC #174 joined 261 for this trip.
In 2014 it operated the Inaugural "North Pole Express" in St. Paul. (see below)
In October 2015 the 261 attended the 2015 Railway Interchange Show in Minneapolis October 4–7. On October 10, 261 pulled a daytime round-trip excursion to Boylston, WI, where it was wyed and returned to Minneapolis. The next day 261 did the same to Willmar, MN on October 11, but used a turntable to face forward for the return to Minneapolis. Amtrak's Phase IV heritage unit #184 joined the 261 for both trips.
The 261 traveled to St. Paul Union Depot under steam to be displayed along other equipment for "Union Depot Train Days", celebrating the 90th anniversary of the building. It was featured in a night photo shoot with Soo Line FP7 #2500.
On June 4, 2016, Milwaukee Road 261 ran a round trip to Duluth, Minnesota, returning to Minneapolis on June 5. Amtrak has been power short as of recent, so 261 performed this trip on its own.
North Pole Express
In December 2014, for two weekends, the 261 operated out of St. Paul Union Depot pulling short trips decorated as the "North Pole Express". The train consisted of 4 coach class cars, and operated on a one mile (1.6 km) long track on the Depot grounds. Milwaukee Road 261 even posed next to Canadian Pacific's Holiday Train when it also visited the depot.
It reprised its role as the locomotive for the "North Pole Express at St. Paul Union Depot" in 2015, operating two weekends in December. The engine returned for another season of the "North Pole Express" in 2016.
The Milwaukee Road 4-8-4's were known for their distinctive Mars light above the headlight. The 261 was no exception. When its second restoration was completed in 2013, it was put in its "as delivered" appearance. This meant that the Mars light was not included on 261. In 2016, the light was replaced.
Excursion fleet and support equipment
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Most 261 excursions are assisted by modern diesel-electric locomotives, required by Amtrak. Those engines can help pull longer trains or provide motive power if 261 were to break down en route. The diesel also provides head end power for the passenger cars. In recent years, these have usually been GE P42 locomotives. Sometimes Amtrak Heritage Locomotives are requested, though such locomotives are not always available.
Part of the success of the Friends of the 261 has been the purchase of numerous passenger cars for use on excursions. One that fans might recognize is the first tool car, the "Earling". The car was built by the Milwaukee Road as a "Beaver-tail" observation in 1939, but was rebuilt into a tool car in 1959. The car was donated to the Friends in 1992, and was the main tool car until 2003. The car's age made it expensive to upgrade to Amtrak specifications, so a new tool car, "Grand Canyon", was bought and repainted. Here is a list of the cars now owned by "Friends of the 261". All are painted in the Milwaukee Road's famed "Hiawatha" orange and maroon unless otherwise noted.
- "Grand Canyon" 1615, Tool Car/Dormitory car, Former U. S. Army, later Amtrak. Bought in 2002.
- "Lake Pepin" 7616, Coach, Former Pennsylvania Railroad clocker coaches. Acquired in 2003. Holds 76 passengers. Temporarily painted in Amtrak colors after a movie shoot in 2010.
- "Wenonah" 202 & "Nokomis" 203. Former Algoma Central Coaches, holds 54 passengers. Bought in 1994.
- Baggage/Bar/Concession Car 2450. Former Union Pacific, later Amtrak.
- "Wisconsin Valley" 3103,Lounge. Former U. S. Army, later Amtrak. Bought in 2002.
- "Minnesota River" 31, Sleeper. One of the last new cars bought by the Milwaukee Road in 1954.
- "Super Dome 53" Full length dome. Former Milwaukee Road, later Canadian National, later Chicago & Northwestern, later North Carolina Department of Transportation. Bought off eBay in 2005.
- "Cedar Rapids" 186, Skytop Lounge. Original and distinct to the Milwaukee Road. Bought in 1998.
- "Lamberts Point" 200, Business car. Former Norfolk & Western. Leased to Canadian Pacific steam program between 2004 and 2009.
Non-Amtrak certified coaches include the "Earling" (1938), "Milwaukee" business car. Though the cars are not Amtrak certified (as of writing), they are used for added capacity for non-Amtrak insured excursions. In addition, the Friends of the 261 owns a water car, number 250002. The water car was once a tender used behind an L&N "Big Emma" 2-8-4, and later became a water car for the Southern and Norfolk Southern steam program. The water car was bought at an auction in 1995 when NS ended its steam program.
Trains pulled by the 261 usually feature the distinctive Skytop Lounge Cedar Rapids, created by the noted industrial designer Brooks Stevens, and built by the Milwaukee Road shops for Hiawatha service in 1948. This car, completely upgraded in 2004, and an interior restoration in 2014, is equipped with 24 Rota-Cline seats, 12 seats in the Solarium, one drawing room/kitchenette. It is commonly paired with a 54-seat full length dome, Super Dome No. 53, built by Pullman-Standard for Milwaukee Road in 1952.
- Passenger Train Journal, November 1993, p. 20. Interurban Press/Pentrex.
- "Milwaukee Road 261 sale pending". Archived from the original on April 26, 2010.
- "Milwaukee Road 261 has new Owner.". Archived from the original on February 20, 2010.
- "Milwaukee 261 sold, will continue operating". Trains. May 8, 2010. Retrieved June 25, 2011.
- Kuchera, Steve (7 May 2013). "Refurbished Milwaukee Road locomotive to steam from Twin Cities to Duluth". twincities.com. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- "Milwaukee Road No. 261 to pull autumn excursions". Trains Magazine. 21 August 2013. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Glischinski, Steve (30 May 2014). "Milwaukee Road 261 to pull steam excursion to Duluth". Trains Magazine. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
- Friends of the 261
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