Building Up Steam

Starting up a steam locomotive requires a huge fire and a lot of patience while you wait for several hundred gallons of water to boil, but patience and a fiery determination are the exact qualities one will find at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom as they attempt to fire-up their steam program after an eleven year absence.

“The last time we offered steam train rides was for our Snow Train event in 2000,” admits the museum’s president Jeff Bloohm. “The high cost of making repairs that meet today’s federal standards limited us to an easier, cheaper diesel-powered operation due to a lack of funds.”

An unexpected change in the museum’s fortune occurred last week when they were presented with a $250,000 challenge grant to restore not just any steam locomotive, but the museum’s star in its locomotive fleet, the Chicago & North Western No. 1385.

“This is the first locomotive we used for giving train rides when we moved our operation to North Freedom in 1963,” says Bloohm. “It has traveled the Midwest on goodwill tours, been featured in movies and documentaries, pulled the Circus Train, and is listed on both the Wisconsin and the National Register of Historic Places. It has essentially been the image of Mid-Continent for nearly fifty years.”

The much needed financial boost for this monumental restoration project came from the Wagner Foundation of Lyons, Wis. Dick Wagner, the foundation’s president, explained their motive for providing the grant as simply being rooted in the fact that, “We have supported the museum over the past few years and have been impressed with their programs, their popularity with young families, and their determination to recover from the destruction of 2008’s flooding.”

Mid-Continent had been working to revive its steam program but their whole operation was shut down when the Baraboo River completely inundated the museum’s property. Bloohm acknowledges that “Every building and most of our collection suffered some form of water damage that year. And we have been in recovery mode ever since.”

Visitors to the museum located in a beautiful section of rural Sauk County will find it a little inconvenient to park, buy tickets and board the train as the construction continues. “But the trains are running,” Bloohm says, “per schedule and we hope people will still make the effort to ride the train and view our collection.”

Mid-Continent has always been a place where the past has come alive through its preservation of various pieces of railroad equipment. Now it is about to recapture a bit of its own precious history through the restoration of its premiere steam locomotive.

“We couldn’t think of any more important way to support the museum further than to help it get its steam program going again,” Wagner confides, whose foundation is known for its own preservation work with another mode of transportation, airplanes.

Bloohm agrees and is glad the foundation’s trustees have taken an interest in preserving our steam locomotive heritage. “Steam is the draw and without it the museum’s attendance has suffered.”

Another person who appreciates the impact this gift will have on both Mid-Continent’s and the area’s appeal to tourism is Tom Diehl, president of the Tommy Bartlett Shows and Exploratory World in the Wisconsin Dells.

“Putting the 1385 back in working order would revitalize Mid-Continent’s appeal as a tourist destination for our area.” Diehl is backing up his support of this project by serving as the honorary chair for the fund raising campaign to match the Wagner Foundation’s challenge grant. “It makes a statement about our shared commitment for preserving a key part of our nation’s heritage symbolized in this iconic artifact.”

Donations to match the challenge grant for the locomotive’s restoration can be made on-line through the museum’s website at or by mailing a check to the museum’s office at P.O. Box 358, North Freedom, WI 535951.

Steam will return to the Mid-Continent Railway Museum for a brief time August 6th through the 14th with the arrival of the Flagg Coal Company #75. This tank engine is small enough to move across country by truck and trailer. And North Freedom is one of its scheduled stops this year in support of the campaign to restore the Chicago & North Western No. 1385.

Donations to this campaign can also be made at the fifth annual Gandy Dancer Festival in Mazomanie, WI August 20th. This free event includes a variety of activities along with a list of high quality performers that will keep the family entertained all day long. Donation Stations will be placed at various spots on the festival grounds with all proceeds going to benefit the 1385’s restoration.

Mid-Continent is a Wisconsin not-for-profit organization founded in 1959 and all gifts made to the organization are fully tax-deductible. For more information you can visit the museum’s web site or call their toll free number at 1-800-930-1385.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 5-16-82, on Prosperity Special. Philip R. Hastings photo, MCRM collection.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 5-16-82, on Prosperity Special. Philip R. Hastings photo, MCRM collection.

Swaged Superheater Tubes Arrive

Swaged superheater tubes for the C&NW 1385 arrived on August 27, 2010 and were placed in storage for eventual use in the new boiler.


C&NW 1385 Steam Status

C&NW #1385’s initial restoration efforts were documented within the pages of the Mid-Continent Railway Gazette and Mid-Continent’s The Steamer! newsletter and were not documented online. The following is an overview of #1385’s status written for the website as of June 29, 2006.

The image most people have of Mid-Continent involves the Chicago & North Western #1385 under steam, pulling either the Prosperity Special or the Circus Train or one of our own special excursions like Snow TrainTM or the Santa ExpressTM. The power of this image is so strong that museum guests still come here expecting to see the R-1 sitting in front of the depot, ready to make the day’s runs, even though she has been out of service since June of 1998.

We knew several years ago that her time was limited and began a fund raising campaign in 1996 entitled “Help Steam Live.” The campaign goal was a mere $250,000, when we thought the needed repairs would simply be tube and flue replacement plus patching the interior side-sheets of the firebox. But once the work commenced, the extent of the firebox damage from over eighty years of service became apparent. The result of a visual inspection by the State’s boiler inspector was the condemnation of the firebox.

While Mid-Continent’s volunteer shop crews wrestled with the decisions on how to proceed with the repair work, Federal guidelines for steam boiler operation changed, mandating even further major repairs. The museum engaged Steam Services of America in 2001 to perform a complete inspection of the boiler in light of these new requirements. The result was a significant expansion of the repair plan to encompass a major overhaul of the entire boiler. And the new price tag approached $750,000, well beyond the money raised by the “Help Steam Live” campaign. The R-1 was parked in favor of repairing less costly locomotives.

Still the museum was holding a significant amount of money restricted for the purpose of restoring this specific locomotive to operating condition. So in 2004 an agreement was entered with Deltak Construction Services of Plymouth, MN for the manufacture of a completely new boiler using all-welded construction techniques. The cost of $415,000 proved to be significantly lower than the cost of repairing the old boiler. And the long-term maintenance cost would also be less, insuring the R-1’s ability to operate far into the future.

Phase 1 of this program is now complete with Deltak delivering the engineering study and approved boiler drawings to the museum. Phase 2 will be the purchase of the needed materials. And Phase 3 will involve the boiler’s actual construction at Deltak’s shop, concluding with a successful hydro test.

When finished, the C&NW #1385 will be the most expensive of the three steam locomotives currently under repair. And that is why she is at the end of the list in terms of priority. But no concept of a steam program at Mid-Continent has ever been considered that would exclude the R-1 from being returned to operating condition. She is the gem of the steam locomotive collection.

View a history of C&NW #1385 here.