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Visit by steam locomotive to bring piece of railroad history to town

WILLMAR — A piece of railroad history is chugging into town Saturday with a visit by the Milwaukee Road No. 261 steam engine.

Willmar is the train’s last stop during a day-long excursion that starts Saturday morning in Minneapolis. The train will use the former Great Northern Railway line, now part of BNSF Railway, on its 186-mile round trip to Willmar and back.

It will arrive at the Willmar depot around noon Saturday and will be there for about two hours, said Judy Sandberg, one of the organizers of the excursion.

“Anybody can come and see it,” she said.

The train also is expected to draw many sightseers along its route, which will take it through Litchfield, Grove City, Atwater and Kandiyohi.

“We always have crowds around the crossings,” Sandberg said.

Between 400 and 500 passengers will be on board.

The route being taken by the steam-powered No. 261 was once used by the Empire Builder passenger train and hasn’t seen regularly scheduled passenger train service since 1979.

Its destination of Willmar has been a railroad town for more than a century. Willmar was the first Great Northern division point west of Minneapolis, with a roundhouse, turntable, large yard and freight and passenger depots. It was also a junction town, with lines that went east to Minneapolis, northwest to Fargo, southwest to Sioux City, Iowa, and northeast to St. Cloud. Only the St. Cloud line is no longer in operation.

Saturday’s excursion is coordinated with the help of BNSF and Amtrak. While in Willmar, the locomotive and tender will be uncoupled from the train and turned around on the former Great Northern turntable once used by steam locomotives.

The 261 will make a second trip Sunday from Minneapolis to Boylston, just south of Superior, Wis. The 250-mile round trip will use

former Great Northern Hinckley Subdivision line.

Sandberg said the crew began firing up the locomotive and tender on Thursday. It takes two days for the pressure to reach the right stage for powering the train, she said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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