Facebook Page

Milwaukee Road 261 Davenport to Lisbon 6/2/2017

by Chris Guenzler

After Dalton, Bill Compton and I drove to Leonard and set up along the Red River Valley & Western Railroad, waiting for Milwaukee Road 261 to come to us on its afternoon trip to Lisbon. We met Dave and Kathy Smetko there and after catching up, they would join us on our chase.

Milwaukee Road 261

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 under its own power since that time.


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, is rated at a maximum of 4,500 hp and maximum speed of 100 mph 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 going from North Kansas City top Lincoln to Sioux Falls back to the Twin Cities.

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.


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 film 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 Train Festival 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 Train Festival 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, it 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.

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.

In October 2016, the 261 operated three round trips from Minneapolis on the Twin Cities and Western Railroad, running on former Milwaukee Road tracks. The 261 operated with out a diesel helper except to be pulled back to Minneapolis as there were no places to turn the train around.

In June 2017, the 261 will operate on the Red River Valley & Western in North Dakota.

Our Milwaukee Road 261 Chase 6/2/2017

At Leonard we had one false alarm when the crossing gates went down. That was our practice before I spotted smoke and knew our train was on its way to us.

Leonard, North Dakota.

The Red River Valley and Western Railroad Employee Special Milwaukee Road 261 train. We headed next to Shelton but was stopped by the train we were chasing.

The Employee Special Milwaukee Road 261 train at the ND 42 grade crossing. We headed to Shelton where we found Bart Jennings and Sarah.

The old Northern Pacific Shelton station.

Employee Special Milwaukee Road 261 train at Shelton. Next Dave and Kathy followed us to Buttzville.

Employee Special Milwaukee Road 261 train at Buttzville. Next we drove into Lisbon.

The train arrived but stopped short of our photo location so we drove over to the steam engine.

Milwaukee Road 261 being serviced in Lisbon. We left then headed to Bonanzaville to write a story about it before returning to Davenport and having dinner at the Davenport Supper and Lounge Club where I had a really good steak. After dinner we walked across the street to photograph Milwaukee Road 261 which arrived while we were eating.

Milwaukee Road 261 Davenport to Lisbon 6/2/2017

Milwaukee Road 261 ready to pull us to Lisbon this late afternoon. We boarded right after 5:00 PM and took seats in the coach "Wenonah". The consist was Milwaukee Road 261, Water Car 25002, LSRY 1001 HEP box car, NSR 1615 "Grand Canyon", NSR baggage-concession 203 "McCormish", NSR baggage car 202 "Golden Walls", Super Dome, CB&Q dome "Silver Club", Milwaukee Business Car, "Lamberts Point", "Caritas" and "Cedar Rapids" on the rear, as well as Red River Valley Operation Lifesaver GP38-2 2628 and GP38-2 2194.

The southeast wye track at Davenport.

The line I will ride after the trip today. We pulled down to load the First Class passengers before we departed on time at 6:00 PM.

One more look at the line to Beckenridge. I bought my ticket for the ferry move down to Breckenridge for a $100 donation to the Friends of the Milwaukee Road 261.

Out across North Dakota. I walked back to the "Golden Wall" baggage car and would enjoy the rest of the trip to Lisbon from there.

Milwaukee Road 261 takes the first curve of the trip.

A North Dakota pond.

I wondered if the afternoon train caused this fire.

More of stunning North Dakota.

More North Dakota ponds along our route.

The grain elevator at Sheldon.

The Northern Pacific station at Sheldon.

The train took the next curve.

The smoke trailing from our steam train.

The train slowly made its way across the Canadian Pacific Rail Line at Ransom Jct.

The train back at track speed taking another curve.

The approach signal for Ransom Jct.

The train took another of the curves on this route.

The train is curving towards Buttzville.

Another pond near Buttzville.


The train took the curves at Buttzville.

Looking back at Buttzville.

That North Dakota scenery is very beautiful.

Another North Dakota pond.

The train made its way down the grade to the Sheyenne River.

Sheyenne River.

This is where the employee train stopped.

This is where our excursion train stopped. I wrote this story on the trip back and during the journey, it was announced that we would take the northwest leg of the wye at Davenport, so I went to the baggage car to document our train doing just that.

The train completed the wye at Davenport then was greeted by a person launching fireworks into the air. The passengers detrained but I stayed on for the trip down to Breckenridge. I moved into the Super Dome, plugged in and wrote the Dalton story as the train went south. Highlights were a town where police cars flashed their lights in honor of our passing and the stormy night produced many flashes of lightning. All too soon the train arrived in Breckenridge and I said my goodbyes to my fellow four rare mileage riders and the 261 train crew. I detrained, Bill found me and we went to the Knights Inn for our two-night stay here. I uploaded the Dalton story then called it a night.