NORTH FREEDOM — While Mid-Continent Railway Museum prepares for the long-awaited return of one steam engine, it has parted ways with another.
The museum’s steam-powered locomotive, the Chicago & North Western No. 1385, is undergoing restoration work at SPEC Machine shop in Middleton, and a new boiler for the engine, along with other integral parts, are being built by Continental Fabricators in St. Louis.
Once the fabrication process is complete, the new parts will be shipped to SPEC Machine, where Mid-Continent and shop workers will reassemble the locomotive.
“At this point, we don’t know exactly how long that will take,” Mid-Continent office manager Jeffery Lentz said Thursday. “It would likely be spring 2019 before it sees any passenger service.”
The engine’s return comes in wake of a controversial decision made last December by the museum’s board of directors to not run Roland “Skip” Lichter’s privately owned steam locomotive, the Saginaw Timber Co. No. 2, despite it being ready for the rails.
In a statement posted to Mid-Continent’s website, board members said their decision was based on the “potential large financial liability in running the Saginaw No. 2.”
“In addition the board of directors is committed to running museum-owned engines, not privately-owned engines, and at the present time does not believe, with the high cost of maintaining and running steam locomotives, that two engines can be run at the same time,” the statement said.
Following the board’s decision to shelve the No. 2, an arbitrator ruled in February that the museum violated a 2003 lease agreement with Lichter to pay for repairs and run his engine for 15 years. The arbitrator required Mid-Continent to pay Lichter more than $200,000 for restoration work he conducted on the engine, plus interest. The museum also was required to cover Lichter’s legal fees, and pay to have his locomotive relocated.
Lichter and his 1912 engine left Mid-Continent in October for the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad in Garibaldi, Oregon. Lichter said the cost of moving his engine on the 2,000-mile trip was more than $100,000. Lichter said he has not spoken with museum board members or reached a resolution since moving.
“I did not want to move,” he said. “I would have been happy at Mid-Continent. It was not my choice, and it was not my doing.”
When Mid-Continent’s Chicago & North Western No. 1385 was taken off the rails for an overhaul in 1998, museum workers discovered the engine was in need of extensive repairs. The repairs, combined with required boiler improvements, were more than the museum could afford.
The costs sidelined the locomotive until 2011, when the representatives from the Wagner Foundation approached the museum with a fundraising plan to restore the engine. Since then, the locomotive has undergone nearly $2 million in restoration work, Lentz said.
Lentz said he’s confident the steam engine will increase ridership at the North Freedom museum.
“We’re trying to recreate railroad atmosphere from the turn of the last century, and steam locomotives are a big part of that,” he said.