TOWN OF SPRINGFIELD — History was lifted and turned last week and took a major step toward again running the rails of rural Sauk County.
The components included a 350-ton hydraulic crane anchored by 110,000 pounds of counterweights, temporary train track, an 82,000-pound locomotive and the generosity of a Wisconsin couple who made their marks in aviation but want to see steam return to the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom.
The Wagner Foundation, established in the late 1970s by Dick and Bobbie Wagner, pledged in 2011 to help fund the restoration of one of the museum’s signature pieces, the 1385 steam locomotive. But just months after the Wagners made their announcement to help rebuild the now 110-year-old engine, Dick Wagner, who liked to restore planes, boats and automobiles, died of a heart attack on New Year’s Day 2012. He never saw the engine leave the museum grounds for a machine shop north of Middleton where it is now in the midst of a five-year, $2 million restoration.
So when the partially rebuilt locomotive was moved last week into a new work space at SPEC Machine, Bobbie Wagner was there to observe. The engine, still lacking a boiler and cab, was rolled out of one workshop, lifted by a crane, turned 180 degrees and gently set back onto a second set of tracks leading to a newly built, larger workshop that will allow for the engine’s completion.
“He loved trains and remembered the old steam engines from when he was a kid and so he had an interest,” Bobbie Wagner said of her husband. “My goal was to finish his project and it still is. So, this is all very exciting to me.”
And for many others.
The 1385 was built in 1907 by American Locomotive Co.’s Schenectady Works in New York for the Chicago & North Western Railroad but was retired in 1956.
Mid-Continent members in 1961 scraped together $2,600 to buy the locomotive from the C&NW and from 1963 to 1998, the locomotive was used to pull cars on the museum’s 3.5 miles of track.
In the mid-1980s, it pulled the Circus Train for three straight summers from Baraboo to Milwaukee and back and in the 1990s made trips on the mainline to Brodhead, Mazomanie and Wausau.
“Hopefully, a year from now, it will be up and running at the museum,” said Steve Roudebush, who owns SPEC Machine and is expecting the locomotive’s boiler to arrive in February. “We just need to focus and get working at it. It’s very important that it get up (to the museum) in a timely manner.”
When it was taken out of service in 1998 for $125,000 in boiler repairs, a closer inspection revealed the engine, which is on the state and national registers of historic places, needed a complete overhaul. The project was initially stalled by fundraising challenges, the recession and a flood at the museum in 2008 that caused extensive damage and closed the museum for the summer.
Now, nearly 20 years after being taken out of service and nearly 10 years after the flood, the museum is on the cusp of major improvements.
In addition to the 1385’s restoration, which could put the locomotive back in service by the summer of 2019, the museum is nearing completion on a $1.1 million display building and feeder track project. The museum’s coach shed can hold 13 cars but is full. The second coach shed will be able to hold nine cars and is being made possible by a $968,000 bequest from the estate of Laurence Dorcy, the late great-grandson of James Jerome Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway.
Dick and Bobbie Wagner were high school sweethearts in Burlington and the founders of Aero-Wag, an aviation parts and delivery company. Their Wagner Foundation funds domestic and international projects, including an orphanage in Bolivia, medical response and prison work in Belize, private school work and a community pool in Burlington, and social-service work in Sauk and Walworth counties.
“Steve (Roudebush) reminds me of my husband in his ambitions and his go-get-him type attitude,” Bobbie Wagner said. “That was Dick and that’s Steve, too. I’m so thankful he’s a big part of this. He’s amazing.”
The Wagner Foundation is funding about 75 percent of the 1385 locomotive project but is also helping to fund the $677,000 reconstruction of a bridge over the Baraboo River that was severely damaged during the 2008 flood, according to Jeff Lentz, office manager at Mid-Continent. Work on that project will start next month. Once completed, the bridge will allow longer runs by the 1385 and other locomotives from the nonprofit museum that specializes in railroad equipment from between 1885 and 1915.
The work on the locomotive has been time-consuming and meticulous, and last week’s move from one workshop to another was a monumental moment. It brought an enthusiastic turnout of train fans and volunteers on a damp, cold morning to SPEC, located on a farm established by Norm Maly in 1877, when steam trains were a prime mode of public transportation.
Those involved with the restoration have learned about patience, but last week’s move brings the end of the historic project into sight.
“Positive waves are always a good thing,” said Peter Deets, a Mid-Continent volunteer and member of a task group charged with overseeing the restoration. “This is very, very significant. It’s progressing and it’s moving forward.”
Last week’s efforts included laying 45 feet of temporary track out of each of the two workshops. Once the locomotive was pulled out of the first shop by a John Deere farm tractor driven by Roudebush, the track it had been sitting on inside for the past three years was quickly disassembled, loaded onto a forklift and delivered to the 25-foot-by-60-foot shop next door. That’s where a team of volunteers used sledgehammers, power drivers and measuring tape to rebuild and connect the rails to the track outside.
Then it was the job of Matt Weisensel of Ideal Crane, of Madison, to hoist the locomotive a few feet off the ground so it could be turned 180 degrees and placed onto the track that led into the second shop, which has an 18-foot door. That height should allow for the locomotive to be fully assembled indoors before what will then be a more than 180,000-pound locomotive is lifted with two cranes and taken by truck to North Freedom.
By Roudebush’s estimates, he has less than 2 inches of wiggle room for the locomotive to clear the door.
“It’s calculated,” Roudebush said with a smile. “If it’s a little too high, we’ll fill it with water to compress the spring tension. I can’t wait until we move it for good. I wish we were moving it up to the museum now.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.