Milwaukee Road 261 – The History
Milwaukee Road 261 in a 4-8-4 steam locomotive built in 1944 by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO). The engine was built in the twilight of steam in North America and worked for only 10 years before the railroad donated to the newly formed National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, WI.
In 1991, North Star Rail selected Milwaukee Road 261 for restoration to power mainline excursions. This locomotive was chosen because of its size being capable of handling long trains at track speed. Milwaukee Road 261 was also a modern steam locomotive equipped with efficient roller bearings. With just 10 in-service years it was in better shape than other possible preserved locomotives. In addition, the asbestos lagging had been previously removed, which would save a large expense in restoring the engine to operation.
North Star Rail leased Milwaukee Road 261 from National Railroad Museum for ten year (and renewed ten years later) and restoration work began at GE shops at Soo Line’s Humboldt Yard in Minneapolis. After two years of work, Milwaukee Road 261 returned to service in September 1993.
For 15 years, Milwaukee Road 261 performed as far east as Scranton, PA, where it spent a year for the opening of Steamtown National Historic Site. There it pulled many trips in the area before returning to Minneapolis and it’s present home at Minneapolis Junction surrounded by BNSF tracks.
Milwaukee Road 261 – Fall Color Trips
Back in Minnesota, Milwaukee Road 261 pulled a wide variety of trips around the Midwest. An annual tradition were the fall color excursions, usually taking place on a weekend during October, with identical trips between the Twin Cities and Le Crescent, Minnesota on both Saturday and Sunday. Departure was from 261’s home base at Minneapolis Junction on the east side of the Mississippi River. The train made its way through Minneapolis and St. Paul on BNSF rails and changed to Canadian Pacific trackage just east of St. Paul, crossing to the west side of the river at Hastings, Minnesota on the Milwaukee Road lift bridge.
A brief stop was often made at Red Wing, then the train continued along the river to Winona. At Winona, some passengers got off for a leisurely lunch at one of the many restaurants, while Winona to LeCrescent passengers took their place.
At LeCrescent, which is just across the river from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the engine was serviced, then the entire train was turned on the wye for the trip west. Once again passengers are exchanged at Winona, then the special speeds back to Minneapolis, usually before dark.
Milwaukee Road 261 Fall Color Trips on DVD
I went through my large collection of footage from these wonderful fall color trips and created a program showing a typical weekend with two round-trip journeys. While Milwaukee Road 261 had very few noticeable changes, the program illustrates the evolution of Amtrak engines and passenger cars used from year to year, as well as differing weather conditions.
Our other DVDs featuring Milwaukee Road 261 are 2816: Chasing Canadian Pacific Steam Across the Midwest (featuring a double header!), Steam: Trackside & Inside, Steam Specials in the Heartland, and Wisconsin Steam Stories.
Milwaukee Road 261 has been rebuilt for another 15 years of service and we expect the locomotive to have a busy first season starting in 2013. This beautiful machine and the folks who keep it running for our enjoyment can use your help. I encourage you to become a member of the Friends of the 261. Membership means you will get updates on upcoming excursions and events, news about 261, and many other benefits. Please visit 261.com to find out more!
Thanks, Steve Mitchell, Yard Goat Images