In 2009, Johnny Depp starred in a action thriller called “Public Enemies.” The movie is about one of the FBI’s first most wanted men, John Dillinger. Set in Chicago during the great Depression, one of the scenes in the movie is at Chicago Union Station. During this scene, theres a moving steam train, and this blog is all about that locomotive. The locomotive is the Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 #261. Owned by the Friends of 261, and previously, the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Milwaukee Road 261 was born in June 1944. She was constructed by the American Locomotive Company in their shops in Schenectady, New York. Built with the builders number 71974, the locomotive was shipped to the Milwaukee Road via the New York Central to Chicago, where she was sent over the Indiana Harbor Belt for delivery to the Milwaukee at the yard in Bensonville, IL, where she was placed in service. The 261 was part of a group of 4-8-4 locomotives that were designated the “S3” class by the railroad. They were used system wide, from Seattle and Portland all the way to Chicago. The locomotives were mixed use, so they were used interchangeably between freight and passenger service. The 261 had a relatively short service career on the Milwaukee. Exactly 10 years after the locomotive was built, the 261 was retired in favor of diesel locomotives. The same year, the locomotive was donated to the then new National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin as the museums first major piece. The locomotive arrived on the property sometime in 1958, after the grounds were set up. From 1958 until 1992, the 261 sat at the museum. In 1991, the North Star Rail group approached the museum in hopes to restore the locomotive for excursion use. The museum and North Star Rail managed to hammer out a 10 year lease on the locomotive, and that lease was eventually lengthened another 20 years to 2011. The locomotive was shipped out of the museum in September, 1992. She was delivered to the GE Shops at Humbolt yard in Minneapolis, MN, where the group had leased space for the engines restoration. Work began right away on bringing the engine back to life.
The locomotive was chosen on a bunch of different factors that helped kept the restoration costs to a minimum. These factors were as the following….
- Remarkable Boiler shape : only 10 years of use
- Asbestos already removed
- Wheels were in accordance to FRA standards
- Minimal rust through-out the locomotive
- 95% of the parts were still on the locomotive, so minimal parts replaced
With all those contributing factors, the locomotive was quickly restored. In less than a year, the locomotive was test fired for the first time, in March 1993, and in September 1993, 1 year after the locomotive arrived in Minneapolis, the restoration was completed. After passing the mandated FRA inspection, the locomotive made its first public moves. The engine double headed over the Wisconsin Central Railroad for its first public excursions to happen on September 18-19th, 1993.
The biggest outing for the 261 after restoration was a year away from home. In 1995, the locomotive was invited to the Steamtown National Historic Park in Scranton, PA for its Grand Opening. The locomotive spent 5 days on the road, deadheading to the event. For over 5 days, the locomotive was the largest operating locomotive at the park. During the stay, the locomotive appeared in a film as the “Lackawanna 1661” and even made its first double header excursion (1 train, two steam locomotives) with the much Smaller, Chinese Built NYS&W 142. On the return to Minnesota after the year long stay, the locomotive made its first moves over the newly created Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company. The merger happened when the locomotive was in Scranton.
Here’s a photo of the 261 as she looked when she ran as “Lackawanna 1661” : http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=349076&nocomments=true
In 1998, the BNSF tapped the Friends of the 261 to handle the groups biggest undertaking yet. Powering the BNSF Employee Appreciation Special. Even though it was only a summer event and not a year long event like Steam town, the engine traveled greater Distances. During the specials, the Locomotive traveled over BNSF rails in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. To end the EAS trains, the locomotive was displayed at the Topeka Railroad Days in Topeka, Kansas, before going home to Minnesota.
In 1999, major changes came about for the engine. With rising insurance costs, the group could no longer afford to run excursions. Instead of calling quits, the group teamed up with Amtrak to run excursions. With Amtrak being Self-Insured, the costs were much more affordable to the group, who is in this field to make a profit. She became only the 2nd steam locomotive to become Amtrak Certified. The first excursions while under Amtrak, was in 2003 when the locomotive returned to home rails between Minneapolis, MN and Winona, MN, a river town along the Mississippi River. Every year, these excursions have been repeated.
In 2006, the locomotive was part of a major celebration in Rock Island, IL. The Iowa Interstate railroad had purchased a Pair of Chinese Steam Locomotive, both QJ types, and the railroad had requested use of the Milwaukee Road cars that the Friends of 261 owned. Instead, the group decided not to only bring the cars, but the 261 as well. On September 15th, 2006, the locomotive was part of a rare Triple Header (3 Steam locomotives, one train) that ran from Rock Island, IL to Bureau Junction, IL and return.
Here’s a photo of the Chinese/Milwaukee Triple Header: http://www.steamtrainsandtractors.com/QJ_261_Tripleheader/IMAG013A.JPG
After one last excursion down the Mississippi, the locomotive entered the Humbolt shops again for the mandated FRA 1,472 day rebuild. During this time, the Friends of the 261 and the National Railroad Museum had re-entered into negotiations for extending the lease on the locomotive. The NRM was firm on their price to extend the lease, and the price was way to high for the group, considering the locomotive was also being completely rebuilt. It was decided that the group would not extend the lease, and instead, search for another locomotive to rebuild. There was a large outcry from the railfan community about how the NRM handled the negotiations. However, instead of putting the locomotive back in its museum, the Museum instead put the locomotive for sale via Sterling Rail Services. In May 2010, the 261 was finally purchased outright from the museum for a final total price of $225,000. That’s cheaper than a Rolls Royce Phantom!
Since the group now owns the locomotive outright, the group is steadily getting the locomotive rebuilt, and to get her running again. As it stands now, the group is estimating that the engine will be back on the rails in 2013 or 2014, pulling excursions like she had. Its also interesting to note that the locomotive has been operating longer in excursion service under private hands (15 years) than it had for its original owner, the Milwaukee Road (10 years).
If you wish to make a donation to the 261, or to get information on becoming a member of the friends of the 261, the group has a website where one can be kept up-to-date on the proceedings to getting the 261 back into operation. That website is www.261.org.
Here’s a photo of the 261 currently being rebuilt in Minnesota: http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=383931&nseq=0
Here’s a photo of the MILW 261 as she looks during excursion service: http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=325181&nseq=8
I hope you enjoyed this latest blog from the The CineTrains Project. As always, if you have any suggestions, be sure to check out the “Submitting Ideas” link under the CineTrains banner! As always, HAPPY RAILFANNING!
This post was requested by the IlliniRail Yahoo! Group!