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Midwest Central Railway and Midwest Electric Railway ~ September 3rd, 2006

by Elizabeth Guenzler

Labour Day is one of the few holidays that Canada and the United States celebrate together. For the five days ending on Labour Day, the City of Mount Pleasant, Iowa hosts the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion. When it first started in 1950, its focus was on steam engines and antique agricultural equipment, but has since expanded and some parts of the grounds are open year-round. Permanent exhibits include the Heritage Museum, featuring a variety of exhibits that celebrate the rural heritage of the midwest, the Stationary Steam Engine Exhibit features three large Corliss engines as well as a number of smaller engines and the Midwest Electric Railway operates a standard-gauge trolley line around the reunion campground. There is also a narrow gauge railway, the 3 foot Midwest Central Railroad, that holds special seasonal events and the Hazel Grace Pierson Carousel Pavilion houses a beautiful fully restored antique carousel.

Bob and I decided to visit southeastern Iowa over the Labour Day holiday in 2006; he had volunteered with the Midwest Electric Railway several years earlier and we had learnt of the Kingsley Inn in Fort Madison. I flew via float plane from Victoria to Seattle on September 1st then we took Southwest Airlines to Chicago, rented a car and drove to the Kingsley Inn in Fort Madison, arriving late on the 2nd.

Note: This travelogue pertains to the Reunion only. For the travelogue on Fort Madison and the Kingsley Inn, as well as a visit to Keokuk, please see A Visit to Fort Madison, Iowa and A Visit to Keokuk, Iowa in the Railfanning Trips Over The Years portion of my website.

Visit to Old Threshers

It had rained the night before and the grounds were rather muddy and puddles did not make it easy to navigate the walkways. It was not a very auspicious start to the day for me.

One of the steam-powered tractors at the Reunion.

A preserved 1905 steam engine.

There were several lines of steam-powered tractors here which did not appeal to me and I was not at all enamoured of the event to this point.

However, my mood changed when we approached the Midwest Central Railroad.

Midwest Central Railroad History

In 1959, a group of Midwest Old Threshers Board Members wanted their steam show to have something that no other steam show in the area could have or acquire very easily. The idea of railroading was put forth and pursued. That year, the group purchased a 1925, 0-4-0 2056 saddle tanker made by Davenport Locomotive Works. This little saddle tanker sat as a stationary display on the area next to a depot brought in from Hillsboro, Iowa.

The MCRR's founder, Stan Matthews, heard about an engine that was being auctioned off in Hardeeville, South Carolina in February 1960. The sale was being held by the Argent Lumber Company which had gone out of business several years earlier. A small group of dedicated rail fans put together a fund raiser in the form of a letter that offered those persons contributing $10 a life time pass to ride the new planned railroad. The Midwest Old Threshers Board was certain this new idea was more than they wanted to handle. They asked the railroad group to form a separate organization from Midwest Old Threshers. The Midwest Central Railroad -- MCRR -- came to be. Stan Mathews, Harold McLeran and Lloyd Peterson served on the first Board of Directors. This little group of railroaders was able to raise over $7,000 from the mailings and went to South Carolina. There they purchased 2-6-0 6 built in 1891, originally ordered new for the Surry Sussex and South Hampton Railroad in Virginia. The engine hauled passengers and freight until it was sold to the Argent Lumber Co in Hardeeville, SC in about 1935 to help haul lumber and work as a yard engine Also purchased at that same sale was 2-6-0 2, a 1906 steam engine which served the New Berlin and Winfield Railroad in Pennsylvania.

The building of the MCRR was a total volunteer effort by the group of railroad fans and many of the citizens of Mt. Pleasant. A pole-barn type roundhouse was built, track laid a short distance, the No. 6 engine shipped and cosmetically restored to running condition in seven months. No. 6 ran at the 1960 Reunion. Also known as "Maria" (named by her crew in her Virginia days), this engine is the flag ship of the Midwest Central Railroad. A full circle track around McMillan Park, approximately a mile and a quarter, was built in less than two years and the locomotive was turned completely turned around without the use of a turntable. By 1966, the railroad had added a caboose and several coaches built from scratch. A water tower from the Bevier and Southern Railroad in Missouri was moved and reassembled East of the roundhouse. A small trestle bridge was built from scratch by a group of CB&Q volunteers on their evenings off.

In 1966, Stan heard of a 1923, Shay No. 9, side-geared logging locomotive being offered for sale at Tuolumne, California. This locomotive was owned by the West Side Lumber Company and was sitting on a sidetrack with trees growing up around her. Stan went to California with his very good friend, Red Leeper and they actually got the Shay running. They were able to purchase this locomotive built by Lima Locomotive Works of Lima, Ohio. In 1982, the Midwest Central Railroad obtained a 1951 Henschel, built in Kassel, West Germany, that was sitting as scrap for 20 years in a Detroit rail yard. The engine along with a sister engine, was to be part of a theme park train that never came to be. The No. 16 was cosmetically restored in just eleven weeks. The MCRR still owns this coal-fired steam engine, however it has been placed out of service pending a thorough boiler inspection.

The MCRR has owned and sold various other locomotives in its history. An 1897 outside frame 2-8-0 engine, No. 1,originally brought up from Mexico and No. 12, a 2-6-2 Baldwin from Hawai'i. Also unique to the MCRR collection was the Burlington Zephyr cars of Mark Twain, Becky Thatcher, and Huck Finn. The Zephyr was later sold as it did not fit into the collection of steam engines owned by the MCRR. MCRR volunteers maintain 2 operating engines, rail cars, tracks and numerous buildings and bits of other equipment. Ongoing shop projects include the total restoration of Engine 2 (1907 2-6-0 Baldwin), possible boiler replacement/engine restoration on Engine 1 (1897 2-8-0 Baldwin), inspection and repairs as necessary on engine 16, and the constant maintenance of everything that moves.

The Hillsboro station built in 1900.

The history of the Hillsboro station.

One of the Midwest Central Railroad coaches as the passengers disembark from their ride.

Steam enveloping the water tower at Hillsboro station.

Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul caboose 55, nee Bellevue and Cascade. Built 1880.

Westside Lumber Shay 9. Westside Lumber ws the last steam-powered narrow gauge logging railway in the United States.

The builder's plate for Shay 9.

The water tower of Midwest Central Railroad.

Westside Lumber Shay 9 leaving the Hillsboro station.

The Denver and Rio Grande coach.

Erzbergbau Salzgitter 0-4-0 16 built by Henschel and Sons. It was acquired in 1982 after being stored and on display for a non-operational amusement park in Detroit in 1963.

After our train ride, we visited the carousel and saw the Wurlitzer organ which creates the music for the carousel.

The steam-powered engine and mechanics used to power the carousel.

It was then time for a ride on the Midwest Electric Railroad.

Waterloo and Cedar Falls Railway streetcar 381. This was the last car to operate in Iowa, in August 1958. Donated by the City of Waterloo to Old Threshers in 1971. This and the other streetcars take people from the parking area to the main gate and other parts of the site.

Milan, Italy streetcar 1945 which was built in 1927 and acquired by Midwest Electric in 2002.

Midwest Electric Railroad open-air streetcar 1779, built in 1911 in Rio de Janeiro. It operated there until 1965 and came to Iowa in 1970.

Chicago, Aurora and Elgin streetcar 320, built 1914 and operated on the C&AE until 1957. It has been at Mount Pleasant since 1968.

The C&AE is Bob's favourite interurban railway so he and I naturally rode in this car. Here is the baggage rack and clerestory windows.

One last view of the Waterloo and Cedar Falls 381 making the rounds. We then drove back to Fort Madison and would continue our Iowa travels over the weekend.

The after-effects of the weather really put a damper on my enjoyment of my time here and put me off returning. Had some circumstances been different, I would have re-visited the Midwest Central and Midwest Electric Railroads in 2012 during the NRHS convention, but unfortunately, that was not to be.