Steam Legends Meet

The Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wisconsin, and Steve Sandberg, president of North Star Rail, Inc. in Minneapolis are joining forces to further the restoration of the museum’s premiere steam locomotive, the Chicago & North Western No. 1385. Sandberg will serve as project consultant, bringing to this project a love of trains and an expertise in steam locomotive restoration which began for him at a very early age.

“My mother and father were founding members of the Minnesota Transportation Museum,” Sandberg says. That was in 1961. “In addition they were instrumental in the formation of the Tourist Railway Association in the early 1970s,” an organization that is best known for uniting the various recreational railroads for mutual support.

“My own experience working with steam locomotives began in 1975 when the MTM pulled former Northern Pacific No. 328 from a park in Stillwater, Minnesota. From 1975 to 1982 I worked closely with the MTM on the locomotive’s overhaul and eventual operation.”

“In 1982 I went to work with Diversified Rail Service in Fort Wayne, Indiana to work on the former Chicago, Burlington & Quincy No. 4960,” Sandberg says. In 1983 he went to work for the Strasburg Railroad, a popular tourist railroad located in Pennsylvania. “My duties included working in the back shop, performing daily inspections, filling in as locomotive fireman, engineer, and hostler.”

In 1985 he returned to the employ of Diversified Rail Services and worked on projects that spanned the country. Steam locomotives are commonly known by initials and numbers and listening to Sandberg talk about the many locomotives whose repair and maintenance he was able to assist invokes a long list of confusing combinations, such as NKP 765, OC 1551, LS&I 18 & 19, GT 4070 and SP 4449.

For most of the people who visit rail museums to see or ride behind the locomotives stamped with these identifying marks they are little more than hieroglyphics. But they are the proof of the dedication of Sandberg and others like him, who have worked hard to keep these vestiges of America’s dynamic railroad heritage in operation and on display for the rest of us to enjoy.

Sandberg himself is best known for the revival of the former Milwaukee Road No. 261 as a functioning steam locomotive. “From 1991 till the present I have been the primary person behind the overhaul, maintenance and operation of No. 261. We have operated over 35,000 miles in 21 different states from 1992 through 2008.”

Sandberg and his volunteer shop crew have just completed a major overhaul on his locomotive and expect to resume offering excursions in 2013, leaving him time now to bring his experience and expertise to the C&NW No. 1385 project.

No. 1385 is the museum’s best known locomotive. “It was the first locomotive used when Mid-Continent first offered its steam-powered train rides in North Freedom in 1963,” says Mid-Continent’s president Jeff Bloohm. “But it attained its popular status as the Midwest Ambassador of Steam when it headed up excursions throughout the Chicago & North Western rail system during the 1980s, including three successive years pulling the Great Circus Train between Baraboo and Milwaukee.” It has since been listed on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places.

The locomotive has been out of service since the summer of 1998 and the museum’s early attempts to restore it to operating condition stalled due to the high cost such ancient machinery requires to meet current standards. Work resumed in June 2011 when Mid-Continent received a $250,000 challenge grant from the Wagner Foundation of Lyons, Wisconsin, but at a pace far slower than desired.

“I am very excited that Steve is joining our team. His background and expertise gives another dimension to the project to further insure its success and timely completion,” says the Foundation’s president, Bobbie Wagner.

Meeting the Wagner Foundation’s challenge is just a start, however. The estimated total cost of No. 1385’s restoration is expected to exceed $1.5 million. “The ultimate benefit to Mid-Continent’s train operations makes the investment worth every cent,” Bloohm says. “The museum’s attendance has dwindled since the last steam train ride was given in 2000 as part of the popular Snow Train weekend.

“Having a steam locomotive at the head of the train is appropriate for our mission, Bloohm states, “but it is essential to the financial success of our organization as well. Having Steve on board will move the 1385 project along more quickly. His track record with the 261 proves he is very capable.”

Both locomotives share a common ancestry. They were built by the American Locomotive Company in their Schenectady, New York shops. No. 1385 is older, with a builder’s date of 1907, while No. 261 came much later in 1944. The younger locomotive is far larger, weighing in at 460,000 pounds, dwarfing the more diminutive No. 1385 which weighs a mere 164,000 pounds.

“For the record,” Sandberg says, “the first locomotive on which I ever sat at the throttle and operated was the 1385.” Contributions to help the railway museum meet the Wagner Foundation’s challenge may be made to the Mid-Continent Railway Museum, PO Box 358, North Freedom, WI 53951 or on-line at

For more information about Steve Sandberg and the operations of Milwaukee Road No. 261 visit

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