Riding the rails
Their heyday is past, but avid fans keep trains on track.
© Torsten Muller
Passengers get on the North Shore Scenic Railroad cars in Two Harbors, Minn.
Their glory days are long gone, but trains will never die.
Thanks to the almost evangelical zeal of their devotees, the locomotives, coaches and cabooses of the 20th century still are serving passengers today — on excursions and as overnight lodging, if not for transportation.
Noisy, smelly and outmoded, these trains still are marvelously evocative of a more romantic era, and those who love them are
So rather than fading gracefully into the mists of time, they’re bellowing into the present, with plumes of black smoke and earsplitting whistles.
Steam locomotives, which tamed the frontier and shaped the nation, inspire the most reverence. But they’re also costly to keep up, labor-intensive and often grounded by high insurance rates.
In the Twin Cities, however, more than 700 members of the nonprofit Friends of the 261 have managed to keep a 1944 Milwaukee Road steam locomotive and a fleet of vintage cars operating. They offer fall-color excursions down the Mississippi River to Winona, in collaboration with Amtrak.
Rail fans come from all over the nation to volunteer as engineers, conductors and brakemen on the runs, says Judy Sandberg of Shoreview, administrator of Friends of the 261.
"It's history, it's fun, it's keeping something alive that's a dying thing,'' she says. “It’s a huge challenge.’’
Teams of avid volunteers also keep passenger trains running in Duluth; Osceola, Spooner and North Freedom, Wis.; and Boone, Iowa. F
rom these towns, vintage trains traverse scenic routes on tourist excursions, many of which also include lunches, stops for pizza, even marshmallow roasts and murder mysteries.
People who want to spend even more time on trains can stay overnight in cabooses and Pullman cars, converted into inns. John Gerlach, who operates the Short Line Railroad B&B in Viroqua, Wis., with his wife, Yvonne, is a lifelong train fan who always wanted to work on the railroad.
He worked instead in real estate and insurance but always took the last week of August to “hobo,’’ donning old clothes and hopping freight cars to get as far west as he could before turning back.
“I tell you, when I came back on the job, I was a whole new person,’’ he said. “I just love trains. Wherever you find trains, you’ll find Jack Gerlach.’’
In retirement, he bought his own Great Northern caboose and refurbished it, turning it into a B&B after Yvonne remarked on the cost. He also is a member of a La Crosse club that’s refurbishing a Chicago, Burlington & Quincy steam locomotive that sits in La Crosse’s Copeland Park.
© Beth Gauper
Vintage trains fill the yard of the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay.
“It's beautiful; how many of those machines do you see, anyhow?’’ he says. “When you see them sitting there, you just dream on and on. We spend so much so we can keep it for future generations. You do it because someone saved it for you, why not save something worthwhile for someone else?’’
Linda Bracho wasn’t a big fan of trains when she stayed in a 1920 caboose in Napa Valley on her honeymoon. But it gave her an idea, and she later opened the Northern Rail Traincar Suites in the woods near Two Harbors.
It consists of 10 boxcars, connected by a hallway lined with vintage train photos and covered by a domed roof.
“I felt like a little kid again when I was in the train, and I wanted to re-create that for people,’’ she said. “We get kids who have read ‘The Boxcar Children,’ and adults who are avid collectors of train memorabilia, or whose parents worked for the railroad. It’s fun to hear the stories.’’
Many train aficionados take their vacations on the real train — Amtrak, whose Empire Builder connects the Twin Cities,
Milwaukee and Chicago.
Day trips on Amtrak actually can be cheaper than tourist excursions, especially if you buy in advance and use a AAA discount.
Folks who have a bit more to spend can shoot right to the top of the class by taking a jaunt on the Royal Canadian Pacific,
whose exquisitely restored business and parlor carriages, built between 1917 and 1930, take tourists on excursions in the
Canadian Rockies but also can be chartered.
It’s the most expensive railroad operation in the world, but passengers can play cards where Winston Churchill slept
and sip a Saint Emilion sancerre where a young Princess Elizabeth drank tea the year before her coronation.
Furnished with Circassian-walnut paneling, burgundy leather upholstery and the original light fixtures, not to mention a French chef, it’s a rolling cocoon of opulence.
Still, says managing director David Walker, who acts as host on the trips, those who take this train tend to be on it because they love trains — all trains.
“Fundamentally, our guests are here because they love railroading,’’ he says.Most people would need to save their pennies for a while before boarding the Royal Canadian Pacific. In the meantime, there are many other trains to ride and to sleep in. They're very popular, especially on weekends and in the fall, so reserve early.
In the fall, Friends of the 261 run special excursions on their 1944 Milwaukee Road steam
locomotive (pictured). No. 261 pulls cars down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to Winona and back.
On each day, it also runs a trip from Winona to La Crescent to turn the locomotive. The group sometimes schedules other special excursions.
© Beth Gauper
Two cabooses are among the lodgings at Maplelag Resort in northwest Minnesota.
The Royal Canadian Pacific offers regularly scheduled five-day tours of
the Canadian Rockies out of Calgary and fly-fishing theme trains, $8,000 Canadian. It also runs custom charters for groups of
at least 20. Call 877-665-3044.
Regularly scheduled excursions
See 5 great train rides for excursions in Duluth
and in the Wisconsin towns of Osceola, Spooner and North Freedom.
In Boone, Iowa, west of Ames, the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad takes
daily 15-mile round-trip excursions in the Des Moines River Valley that include the crossing of two bridges, one a
A steam locomotive is used most weekends; dinner and dessert excursions also are offered on a 22-mile trip. 800-626-0319.
In southeast Wisconsin, the East Troy Electric Railroad runs six miles from the
Electric Railroad Museum in East Troy to the Elegant Farmer farm market in Mukwonago.
The trolley is the last remnant of Wisconsin’s Interurban Line. There are many special trains, such as the Mother's Day
Express, when moms ride free. For those, buy tickets in advance.
In western Minnesota, the Whistle Stop Inn B&B in New York Mills includes 1903 and 1909 Pullman cars with double whirlpools, gas fireplaces, VCRs and mahogany paneling, and an 1893 caboose with whirlpool tub and VCR. Two other rooms are in the adjoining 1903 grand Victorian. 800-328-6315.
Not far away, Maplelag cross-country ski resort near Detroit Lakes includes two cabooses. Rates include three meals a day during ski season; the cabooses also are available in spring and fall, but not summer. 800-654-7711.
In Viroqua, Wis., south of La Crosse, the Viroqua
Shortline Caboose Inn sleeps up to four people in a Great Northern caboose on John and Yvonne Gerlach’s wooded
acreage two miles south of town. The caboose has a small kitchen and VCR with a library of railroad tapes.
Three miles north of Two Harbors on Minnesota's North Shore, the Northern Rail Traincar B&B, across the Stewart River from Betty's Pies, has 17 attractive rooms and a condo in 10 boxcars, connected by a hallway lined with vintage train photos and covered by a domed roof. 877-834-0955.
Just to the north in Sparta, Caboose Cabins rents a
1968 Soo Line caboose that sleeps four and has a refrigerator, microwave, grill and fire pit. It's a block from the northern
trailhead of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail and on the La Crosse River. 608-269-0444.
In Mazomanie, Wis., the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wis., hosts its annual Gandy Dancer Festival in August. It's named for
the men who worked on the rails.
There's bluegrass music, juggling and hay-wagon rides. The Milwaukee Road exhibit at the Mazomanie Regional Heritage Center will be open.
Near Cassville, Wis., Stonefield historic site celebrates Railroad Days in August with hobo stories, music, a bank robbery and carriage rides for kids.
© Torsten Muller
The 261 locomotive steams up the Mississippi River on a fall run.
In Boone, Iowa, near Ames, Pufferbilly Days is held the weekend after Labor Day. Named for the small steam cars that carried coal, the festival includes rides on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad (see above), model train exhibits, a spike-driving contest, a parade, music and an arts fair. 800-266-6312.
In Green Bay, the National Railroad Museum, a 33-acre complex on the Fox
River, is open year-round. Admission is $9, $6.50 for children 3-12, plus $1 for a 25-minute ride on a vintage train,
May through September and October weekends.
In July, it holds a World War II re-enactment and USO Dance. In October, it offers rides on the Great Pumpkin Train. For
more, see Packer country.
Northwest of Chicago, the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, between Marengo and Woodstock,
is highly rated by parents. Most popular is the Day Out With Thomas event, which includes a ride on Thomas the Tank Engine.
Admission is $12 weekends and holidays, $8 for children 3-11, including short rides on electric cars and trains. On weekdays, it's $8 and $4.
Last updated on February 28, 2012
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.