There is something about the steam locomotive’s solidity, weight, and class that will never again be approximated by other modes of transportation. No one gives a second thought when they hear the hum of an overhead jet or the strident honk of a car, but a steam whistle instantly brings to mind thrilling notions of romance, adventure, and the open frontier.
The Milwaukee Road 261, a 4-8-4 Northern type steam locomotive, was built by the American Locomotive Company in New York in 1944. It endured heavy mainline freight work until its retirement ten years later, when rather than becoming scrapped it was donated to a museum in Wisconsin. In 1991, the engine was selected for restoration by a group of Twin Cities-based enthusiasts who would later name themselves the Friends of the 261. They chose it as their project for a number of reasons, the chief among them being that it had already had its asbestos removed (a costly undertaking), and that the brevity of its service life meant its boiler was still in relatively perfect condition.
The Friends returned the beautiful steel gargantua to all its original splendor, complete with a cheerful British racing green paint job. They did so not only out of their love for classic trains, but also because they wanted to foster that same passion in anyone who would come to see it. The Friends always knew, however, that seeing is one thing, and riding is another altogether. They began collecting classic cars to attach to the 261, such as the Super Dome #53 with a full-length glass roof over its entire upper seating area, the century old Lamberts Point with original cherry woodwork and brass fixtures, and the Fox River Valley, complete with its own bar, a requisite for train travel.
The Friends offer special excursions on the 261 to all who would like to come. The North Pole Express, complete with Santa and his elves on board, has been a resounding hit, but with its fully restored dining cars the 261 is earning quite the reputation for its gourmet round trips. These may stop at open fields where passengers can detrain to enjoy wine and cheese in an open field, or take full advantage of the cars’ kitchen facilities. This year the 261 is hosting Oktoberfest with all the brats, kraut, and beer needed to mark the occasion. Think of these outings as journey dining rather than the destination variety.
“The United States of America owes her existence to trains,” said Steve Sandberg, president and chief operating officer of the Friends of the 261. “Without the transcontinental railroad, we would have become two separate countries by now. Trains are why we’re the most mobile society in the world, and everything you see on your table, everything in your house, it all came from a train at some point. Trains aren’t just about what’s in your life, but how we all got here as well.
“Our group of volunteers is dedicated to keeping the spirit of these great machines alive through our work with the 261. We volunteer our time, expertise, and resources to keep the engine and its cars pristine, and through the generous support of Twin Cities & Western Railroad, BNSF Railway, and Amtrak we have access to the maintenance and mechanical support and also the all important tracks it takes to make the 261 possible. It’s a lot of work keeping antique equipment in the condition that we do, but being able to offer this experience to so many makes everything worthwhile.”
To learn more about how you can ride the 261, you need only visit 261.com.