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History rolls in Duluth

Larry Oakes, Star Tribune May 30, 2005

Duluth- On June 28, 1862. a steam locomotive named William Crooks pulled the first trainload of passengers in Minnesota history, a 10 mile chug from St. Paul to St. Anthony. The William Crooks still gleams on the tracks in the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in downtown Duluth. If steel could talk, you think. It looks like a 24 ton Christmas morning choo-choo, with its slender green boiler, black smokestack and big wedge shaped cowcatcher, still pointing the way through time. Steel does talk, in a way at this museum at the old Union Depot in Duluth, a 13 year old edifice of classic French Norman architecture, which has itself been saved from the wrecking ball as a nonprofit heritage and arts center.

One of the largest and most respected rail museums in the United States, its restored railcars and memorabilia tell the story of a flood of migrants and immigrants tamed and exploited a Midwestern frontier rich in timber and iron ore.

"I would rank it among the top two of the more than 20 {rail museums} I've visited in the USA and Canada" wrote Chris Guenzler, a "Rail Fan" from Santa Ana, Calif., who has ridden trains in all 50 states and maintains a website - - devoted to his passion. His other top pick is the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

In Duluth, he wrote in an e-mail, "The Yellowstone locomotive with its drivers turning is unique, and the fact you can climb into the cab makes an even better experience."

The locomotive to which he referred is another gem in the collection. A 566 ton behemoth built in 1941 for the Duluth Missabe and Iron Range {DM&IR}, to pull 190 car ore trains. At 128 feet, the Yellowstone type locomotive is one of the largest and powerful ever built. Also known as a Mallet, {pronounced "malley," for French designer, Anatole Mallet}, the locomotive's drive wheels, suspended just above the tracks, are turned by electric motors every 20 minutes.

Steam Dreams

The museum also operates a tourist rail line - the North Shore Scenic Railroad - with daily trips, dinner excursions, "Tea Trains", and even "Murder Mystery Trains" between Duluth and Two Harbors, about 30 miles away. For those who bleed steam, the museum joins with a Twin Cities group, Friends of the 261, to offer periodic passenger trains between Minneapolis and Duluth. Vintage passenger coaches are pulled by Engine 261, a sleek locomotive that was built in 1944 for the Milwaukee Road.

"We watched people run out of their houses to see it," said Phyllis Becker of Minneapolis, who with her boyfriend, Dennis Amoth, raced by car to catch glimpses of the 261 as it highballed up the tracks to Duluth with 500 passengers earlier this month. "We watched for the steam," Becker said. "It's nostalgic - something that's going to be gone forever."

Volunteer effort

Every Wednesday, a half dozen volunteers, most in their 70s and 80s, chip away at their latest restoration in the museum's shop. They're currently resurrecting the Missabe, a 112 year old luxury car built to haul the Merritt brothers around after they discovered iron ore on what became the Iron Range.

"We've been at this one for three years now," said Leo McDonnell, 80, a retired lawyer who has volunteered at the museum since 1979. He wore bib overalls and a striped railroad cap, frayed around the edges, a he applied chemical stripper last week to the many coats of paint on one of the Missabe's cabinet doors.

"My wife calls this our playpen," McDonnell said, "It's a place to go to get out of the house, and there's a good bunch of fellows here."

A kind of patron saint of the volunteers is the late Don Shank, the DM&IR president who pushed in the 1960's for the abandoned depot to be turned into a museum. Buehler loves to tells the story how the museum acquired a switch engine left behind when U.S. Steel closed its Duluth mill in the 1970's and ordered a group of workers to scrap several small locomotives in the rail yard. But because the workers had been infected by Shank's dream, they mutinously buried the best engine, called the "7-spot" behind a bunch of equipment marked for salvage in a shed. Finally, months or years later, when the coast was clear, one of the workers involved tipped off the museum. The 7-spot is now part of the collection, Buehler said, "and we wouldn't have it if Don Shank hadn't told everyone he knew that someday, there was going to be an important railroad museum in Duluth.

Larry Oakes is at