A Steam Locomotive Back on Track

Steam locomotive reanimated by the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion after a 10-year project.

A 'fire hoop' was used to heat each of the tires.

A 'fire hoop' was used to heat each of the tires of the steam locomotive so they could come off the wheels and be replaced or re-machined.

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It all started innocently enough. Most of us belonging to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion at Rollag, Minnesota, had heard about a steam locomotive that was operating in St. Paul. Some of us had even gone to view its decrepit glory. We were all impressed and delighted that this image from our childhood was still to be seen in real life. The existence of this anachronism was due to a serendipitous condition existing at Kopper's Coke, a coal gasification plant in St. Paul; namely, an extremely cheap supply of coal and a need to shuttle coal cars in the rather extensive yards at Kopper's. In the past the company had owned at least two 0-6-0 switch engines, both of which had been originally used by the Soo Line for yard work and discarded when the internal combustion locomotive took over. One of these machines is now part of an eating establishment in southern Minnesota and the other is the subject of this article.

Engine #353, made by the American Locomotive Works in 1921, was purchased by the WMSTR in January, 1972. Our organization decided to lead where James J. Hill dared not go, we would bring the railroad to that center of commerce, Rollag, Minnesota. Little did we realize at the time what the difficulties and financial pitfalls of railroad building were. Little did we realize that perhaps there were some projects beyond the capabilities of a bunch of well-meaning and very eager Norwegian immigrant descendants. The next ten years would take us through a college of hard knocks and prove for all to see what we could do if we tried hard enough.

The locomotive was sitting outside the beautiful old roundhouse at the headquarters of the Minnesota Transfer Railway in St. Paul. The Transfer very graciously offered us a stall in the building for the work that was to come on #353. One cold day in February 1971, a group of about 12 loyal WMSTR members attacked the worn out behemoth with all manner of wrenches, bars, torches, and just plain muscle and in a long day stripped every bit of pipe, valve and gauge from 353. The job of removing the 36 bolts that held the boiler to the saddle required more concentrated effort.

Our plan was to divide the work of restoration between the 'Fargo bunch' and the 'Minneapolis-St. Paul bunch'. So one day in March 1972, a crane lifted the boiler from its home and placed it onto a low-boy trailer headed for Fargo and the yard outside Larson Welding and Machine. Following the boiler were two other trucks carrying the tender and its running gear. How many necks turned that day to watch that trio carrying their strange load along the freeway at 60 MPH? Now to work!

The boiler was sound but the firebox was in much need of repair. Old repair jobs in it needed re-doing, stay bolts needed replacement and some work on the flue sheet was necessary. One of our members devised a plan of repair which was submitted to the boiler inspector in Minnesota. Again our wonderful membership in WMSTR came through by providing three certified welders who could do this sort of work and who would give evenings and weekends to the project as it sat in one of the work bays at Larson Welding in Fargo. Four corners of the firebox were removed, new corners shaped and welded back in, stay bolts replaced, and the bottom row of flues taken out, retipped, and put back. One of our members tore down the duplex air compressor and rebuilt it, the old cab was torn off and a new one fabricated, the boiler exterior was sandblasted and primed, the super heater was taken out and a bypass constructed for the super heater header, new mesh and baffles put into the smoke box, all holes into the boiler retapped and strengthened.

Meanwhile the running gear was pushed into the roundhouse in St. Paul and the metropolitan boys got busy devising a plan. It was decided that the running gear needed to be torn down completely and built up from the bottom. The frame was jacked and blocked, the three driving pairs were rolled out towards the door, and the frame was torn down to bare frame. Parts were labeled and laid out on the floor. The cylinders, pistons, and piston valves looked just fine but everything else was in need of adjustment, replacement and cleaning. The crank pins were out of round and the connecting rod brasses were in bad shape and needed to be made over. One of our crew designed a machine to attach to the crank pins to turn them down.

Heat is applied to worn tires on #353's drivers for 10 minutes before the tire is loose enough to be driven off with a sledge hammer. This was warm work!

An examination of the tires showed that there was much wear and that they would have to be replaced or re-machined. We needed to take off the tires and at this point the Mid Continent Railway Museum at North Freedom, Wisconsin, came to our rescue by loaning us their 'fire hoop' for the task. One warm day in May, 1972, we fired this up and heated each of the tires so they would come off the wheels. The tires were hauled up to Larson Welding in Fargo with the thought that we may be able to machine them on the BIG lathe. After two days of set-up time we were able to do nothing but make noise and gouge grooves in the tires. We just did not have the right machine for the job. We learned that if we were able to machine these tires back to ideal form there would have not been sufficient bulk left to hold up to the strains of operation. We ordered new tires from a company in Pennsylvania, each with a specific internal diameter to fit the wheels so that no shimming would be necessary. A few months later these new tires were put back using the 'fire hoop' as before. We were becoming accomplished locomotive mechanics and the railroad employees' look of bewilderment and disdain they had towards our crazy project was replaced with one of respect and admiration. The help the railroads gave us during the whole project was immeasurable.

We learned to respect the work they did and learned why not too many of them had shed tears when steam left the railroad!

The running gear crew was broken into two shifts, we worked alternating evenings and weekends so as not to get too tired of the project. We all had full time jobs and needed time to devote to family and friends.

The day came when the running gear was ready to be 'out shopped' and shipped up north to be reunited with the boiler. A large crane was hired and the machine was loaded on a truck and hauled up to sit at Larson Welding. In March, 1977, arrangements were made with the Burlington Northern in Dilworth, Minnesota, to obtain the use of a stall in their roundhouse for the completion of our project. The running gear and boiler were hauled out to the yards and after several years of being apart, the boiler was again placed in its home on the running gear in June, 1977. Now it was starting to look like a locomotive again and we were beginning to see that our project may yet be completed. The machine would spend almost a year in the stall at Dilworth while the arduous task of reinstalling the hundreds of feet of pipe of various sizes, the dozens of valves, the lubrication system, the intricate air brake system, and adjusting the brake rigging was taken on by two of the WMSTR's most dedicated members who would devote the next years of their lives to the giving of life to our still inanimate #353. One of these gentlemen had wanted as a child to be an engineer on the railroad (what boy didn't) and he was now able to have his dream come true, if he worked hard enough! In March, 1978, we made a ramp, laid track up the ramp and onto a LARGE low-boy trailer, and pushed the almost completed 353 onto the truck. Slowly the truck made its way out to Rollag with the 150,000 pounds of motive power and was met by two 50 ton cranes which gingerly off-loaded the engine onto our tracks. After more work, the engine had a fire in its boiler and produced steam and moved down our tracks in September, 1978, at our annual reunion which takes place on Labor Day weekend. Indeed this project required labor!

Of course we were smart enough to realize that when one has a train one needs a roadbed and track! A group had been busy planning and building a short mile length of track at our show grounds at Rollag. An initial survey proved the feasibility of building a two-mile circle that would ring the property.

Shortly after the locomotive was procured we found that we could obtain a two-mile branch line about 130 miles north of Rollag just for the taking. A work crew was put together, a spike puller fabricated, and away a bunch of devoted WMSTR members, ladies and men, headed to tear up this line. In a period of two months the project was completed and we now had 21,000 spikes, 6000 ties, 740 rails, and wood from 3 railroad bridges at Rollag. Later we would buy more ties as about of the original amount were rotten and were cut and split for burning in our steam traction engines during our fall show. Thousands of the spikes were bent and one of our blacksmiths straightened these. Thousands of bolts and nuts needed to be cleaned and made ready for the day the rails would be laid.

Locomotive #353 finally on the track at Rollag, Minnesota

The RR grade was prepared and large work crews started the task of laying ties, rails, and driving spikes. We found out just how much work this was. Indeed if any of the work up to now had seemed difficult, this obstacle seemed insurmountable! The work went slowly, workers tired rapidly, enthusiasm was difficult to maintain and if nothing else was learned, we did realize that the building of a railroad was not easy. But, after several summers we had about of a mile laid, tamped, and leveled and were very proud of the accomplishment. We tried not to think about the one-and-a-quarter-mile that remained for us!

In 1974 two RR depots were moved onto the grounds for the project and we began to realize that every locomotive needs a 'roundhouse'. In 1976 we built a 36' x 72' building 18' high and ran our mainline right through it. Not very round but it would do nicely.

During the fall of 1981 and spring of 1982 the rest of the track was laid. The completed line includes a run along our lake and through a 12' cut. We have a Y as well for reversing the direction of the train to equalize wear.

The first circum navigation of the WMSTR grounds by engine #353 and its rolling stock will take place mid-summer 1982 amid cheering and excitement and perhaps a few tears. Our railroad is a monument to those who devoted large parts of their lives to its completion, to those who had the dream of preserving this part of our heritage for future generations. For some it was just plain hard work, but work given freely and without complaint. For some it is childhood dreams come true, for some it means that any task can be accomplished with enough effort and planning. For most of us it is a reminder of the way things used to be and for many who come to the WMSTR show it will be the only steam locomotive they will ever see in operation.

Since kids like to play, our show also has a 3' scale (15' gauge) model live steam train that can pull 16 adults around a circular course and a smaller ' scale (3' gauge) 4-8-4 operating in our miniature land display. We have not forgotten the Railroad at Rollag.