Aug 1, 1992


Mark the time and date: 1:36 p .m., Thursday, March 5, 1992. On that date in Green Bay, Wisconsin, former Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 261 touched home rails again for the first time since the 1950’s. The locomotive was being moved from its display site at the National Railroad Museum to the Wisconsin Central’s former Milwaukee Road engine house, a distance of about six miles.

The move turned out to be much more involved and difficult than originally anticipated. The spur track into the museum was never designed to handle a big locomotives like the 261: it is on an 18-degree s curve, with 70-pound rail and no tie plates all on a steep grade. Three months before, North Star Rail crews began the work of preparing the engine for movement, including oiling and cleaning all moving parts. On February 13, the move began when the Fox River Valley Railroad switch crew, using a Green Bay & Western diesel locomotive moved in to pull the engine up the spur track. As the move progressed up the steep curving grade, the couplers between the locomotives were bypassing like a teeter-totter, causing the 261’s wheels to derail with practically every move. North Star Rail crews became experts at using railing frogs, but as night was falling, it was decided to return the engine to the museum and try again the next day. The engineer kicked off his brake to push the Northern back down the grade to the museum. Unfortunately, the diesel/steam engine combination picked up too high a rate of speed. At the bottom of the hill, the Northern encountered a curve, and the excessive speed and heavy weight of the engine pushed out the rail – leaving three drive wheels on the ground. It was back to square one.

On Friday, Feb. 18, North Star crews moved in with rented 100-ton porta-power jacks, which were used to lift each drive wheel. The rail was then pulled back under the wheel, and the engine lowered back onto the rail. On February 21, two rented semi-truck wreckers were used to slowly winch the 261 up the grade out of the museum to the top of the grade, where the Fox River Valley could easily move it. The engine sat at the interchange waiting for some documentation to be cleared up until March 5. 261 was then moved to the Wisconsin Central (WC) interchange, hitting old Milwaukee Road trackage in Green Bay at 1:36 p.m. A WC engine shoved 261 to their yard, and on March 6 into the WC enginehouse.


# 261 has not operated since 1954. To get the locomotive back in operating condition, North Star Rail crews have been working steadily since the engine was moved to the Wisconsin Central engine house in Green Bay. To date, much has been accomplished. All of the roller bearings on the locomotives wheels have been inspected, cleaned, and  re lubricated. Special “lateral motion springs” which help control the movement of the locomotive as it travels down the rails, have been rebuilt and reinstalled.

One of the more critical elements in the rebuilding process is insuring that the locomotive’s massive boiler is sound. Careful inspection of the boiler is required to help determine its integrity. First, North Star Rail crews removed all the “superheater” elements (which re-heat steam to help the locomotive operate more efficiently) and the flues (long boiler tubes) from the 261’s boiler. Then, North Star Rail Chief Operating Officer Steve Sandberg and steam  locomotive rebuilder Gary Bensman conducted a thorough inspection of the boiler shell the week of May 18th. They found that the boiler was sound, but that a small patch will be required on a portion of the rear flue sheet knuckle, which holds the long boiler tubes in place. The boiler is in such great condition thanks in part to the efforts of the National Railroad Museum, which sprayed foam insulation into the boiler in the mid-1980’s to preserve it. According to Sandberg, “Work on the boiler can now begin at an accelerated pace.”

Already, the interior of the boiler has been sandblasted, which revealed the original markings placed by the boilermaker when the engine was built. These markings give important information about boiler tolerances that will be needed to certify 261 with the Federal Railroad Administration for operation.

Roller bearing problems solved

Rebuilding a nearly 50-year old steam locomotive presents many challenges, particularly when it comes to finding spare parts. Today steam engine repair is a lost art, and parts frequently must be fabricated or modified to fit . In the case of Milwaukee Road steam engine # 261, now undergoing initial rebuilding, just finding parts for its wheels so it could be moved has proved a difficult task.

Problems began when it was discovered that the boxes that hold the roller bearings for the 26l’s tender wheels were gone while the locomotive was still at the National Railroad Museum. They had been removed by the Milwaukee Road prior to donating the engine to the museum for use on other locomotives similar to the 261. Without the roller bearings and the special sized boxes to hold them, the 261 could not be moved long distances, such as to the Twin Cities, where the work of rebuilding the engine would take place.

North Star Rail, which is rebuilding 261, began a nationwide search for replacement roller bearing boxes. After scouring the U.S., the search ended in Kansas City, MO. where several old gas-turbine locomotives, which formerly belonged to the Union Pacific Railroad, were discovered in storage. These turbine locomotives also carried tenders, and the roller bearing boxes were nearly identical to the 261’s. Several were shipped north to Green Bay, while brand new roller bearings purchased from the Timken Co. (who had sent a representative to inspect the 26l’s old bearings) were sent to
Bill Gardner’s Northern Rail Car at Cudahy, Wis. where repairs to 261’s tender axles and the installation of the roller bearings is being conducted. Once the tender wheels are repaired, the bearing boxes will be modified slightly and installed in Green Bay.

All brass bearings have already been taken apart, cleaned and reassembled. After repairs are complete, the tender’s “trucks” (which hold the boxes and wheels) will be reassembled and placed back under the tender. Rebuilding of the tender will be complete by the time the engine is moved to the Twin Cities, where several rebuilding sites are now under consideration.

Baggage tool car on the way

Getting a steam locomotive over the railroad in the 1990’s is not an easy task. There are no more coal docks, water spouts, or roundhouses to service steam power. If there is a problem along the way, crews must bring their tools and equipment with them, which is the purpose of the “tool car”. North Star Rail, which is rebuilding the 261 for service, wanted an authentic Milwaukee Road car to carry equipment for the 261, in keeping with the historic and educational nature of the project. Such a car has now been located in the form of ex-Milwaukee Road storage car 1959. Built at the Milwaukee Shops, the rib-sided car was constructed in 1938 as a “Beaver Tail” observation car for the “Twin Cities Hiawatha” Chicago-Twin Cities streamliner, carrying the name “Earling.” It was later assigned to the Chicago-Omaha “Midwest Hiawatha” before being converted to a storage car. It is expected North Star Rail will acquire the car soon and repaint it in the Milwaukee Road’s 1938 “Hiawatha” paint scheme.

Friends of the 261, Inc.

Memberships in “Friends of the 261” is growing. More than 40 individuals and corporations have become members of the organization, which is a non-profit group established as a support organization for the 261 project. Members receive this newsletter, trip discounts, and can be involved in equipment rebuilding projects once the engine moves to the Twin Cities, where work on the locomotive will be completed. If you wish to become a member or assist the organization, write to the address at the bottom of this page. Individual memberships are $25, corporate memberships are $100 annually.

About the 261 …

Steam locomotive #261 was built for the Milwaukee Road by the American Locomotive Co. in 1944. In 1958 it was donated to the National Railroad Museum. 261 is being returned to service by North Star Rail, Inc; to educate and promote awareness of the railroad industry.


FRIENDS OF THE 261 INC. 11686 Azure Lane, Inver Grove Hgts, MN 55077


© Friends of the 261. Archived Northern Lines Newsletters are copied from original wordings of letters sent out on the date in header. Format maybe different from original letter but the articles remain the same. All addresses, contact info, promotions, discounts, rewards and pricing in archived letters are no longer valid.

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