A blast from the past: Steam engine’s visit to Willmar captures history, romance of the railroad

WILLMAR -- A piece of history chugged into town Saturday with a visit by the Milwaukee Road No. 261, a steam locomotive restored to the heyday of the steam-powered train.

Steam Locomotive
Milwaukee Road No. 261 backs up to the Willmar roundhouse where it was to be turned around on the former Great Northern turntable on Saturday during the steam-powered fall color excursion to help raise funds for the historic train. Saturday’s day-long excursion began in Minneapolis and ended in Willmar where the engine was turned around so the train could return to the Twin Cities. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR - A piece of history chugged into town Saturday with a visit by the Milwaukee Road No. 261, a steam locomotive restored to the heyday of the steam-powered train.

Spectators waited in a cold rain Saturday morning for a sight of the train, which was carrying more than 300 passengers on a 186-mile round trip excursion from Minneapolis to Willmar and back.

Trailing a plume of steam and smoke, the engine was visible from a long way off as it neared its destination. Onlookers lined a footbridge off East Litchfield Avenue and clustered along the tracks at the depot, watching the train slowly steam into town.

“I’ve never seen one before,” marveled Stephanie Young. “It’s a part of history.”

As the gleaming black locomotive and its line of cars came to a halt, the engine let off a long, loud steam-powered whistle. Cameras snapped and video cameras whirred.


The 261, restored with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of private donations, is no longer a workhorse cruising the rails with a cargo of freight and passengers. Instead, it’s enjoying a fruitful second career as an excursion train and real-life icon of the romantic steam-powered era of the American railroad.

Jon Strand, one of the car hosts for Saturday’s day-long excursion, has been volunteering with the Friends of the 261 since 2004.

“It’s not a museum display,” said Strand, of Chippewa Falls, Wis. “That’s the mission of the 261 group - to get the equipment out and used so people can enjoy it. We don’t want it to sit in a yard and rust.”

Friends of the 261 offer steam-powered train excursions twice a year, in the spring and fall. Passengers on Saturday’s trip paid anywhere from $99 to $359 to experience rail travel like it used to be.

The most expensive tickets bought passage in a domed Pullman car that once saw service in Canada.

This weekend was the last chance to ride the 261 until next spring. After its trip to Willmar on Saturday, the train was scheduled to make an excursion to Duluth on Sunday before retiring for the winter.

Katie and Jason van der Hagen brought their three children to the Willmar depot Saturday to see the train.

“The kids like trains so it seemed like a fun event to come to,” Katie said. “The boys are fascinated with trains, and their sister likes everything her brothers like.”


For Katie, the interest also was personal. She has ridden on a steam engine before, and at one time worked with the kitchen crew on a train.

For statistics buffs, the locomotive can carry 25 tons of coal and 20,000 gallons of water. When fully stoked, its boiler pressure reaches 250 pounds. It contains 20 feet of tubes and flues and is capable of a top speed of 100 miles per hour. The fleet of cars includes two cars built in the 1950s as U.S. Army hospital cars and one of the last passenger cars ever built by the Milwaukee Road.

The passenger fleet is in demand for specialty trips and the cars are rented out across the U.S., Strand said. Several have been refurbished and upgraded.

The 261’s progress to Willmar and back drew lots of spectators as it steamed through Howard Lake, Cokato, Litchfield, Grove City, Atwater and Kandiyohi.

“It was fun,” Strand said. The train made two stops, one at Wayzata and one in Litchfield, to grease the engine, he said. Although the axles have roller bearings, all the linkages must be greased by hand, he explained.

Use of the track was coordinated by BNSF and Amtrak.

During its two-hour stop in Willmar, the locomotive was uncoupled from the train and driven to the former Great Northern turntable, where a small flock of photographers and train enthusiasts watched as it was turned around so it could be recoupled to the rest of the train for the return trip. The turntable is the same one used by the Great Northern’s steam locomotives.

Harlan and Rita Broers came all the way from Clara City on Saturday to see the 261.


Harlan’s father once worked as a section foreman on the rail line to Marshall, so the couple was well versed in railroad stories. But they said nothing compared with the reality of seeing a steam locomotive in action.

“So neat. So neat,” Harlan said.

It lived up to all her expectations “and then some,” said Rita.

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