TOWN OF SPRINGFIELD — Steve Roudebush and Bruce Grill are craftsman, only metal is their specialty, not wood.
The longtime friends and business partners who met while working at Webcrafters in Madison have, since 1997, used the lathes, milling machines and micro-
meters in their machine shop north of Middleton to make common repairs to farm implements and to create highly specialized pieces of equipment for other clients.
The roster of projects includes housings for DNA sampling machines, test equipment for inhalers and vaccination machines for chickens. They also used their shop about 12 years ago to design and manufacture stainless steel rat cages for experiments aboard the International Space Station. The cage parts, each $3,200, were machined to within 2/1000th of an inch.
The latest repair project at SPEC Machine, tucked among farm buildings and silos on Riles Road, is one of the biggest for Roudebush and Grill in the most literal sense. In fact, to take on the work, the men rearranged their shop, no easy job when you’re talking about heavy CNC machines that must be perfectly level.
They also added a 14-foot-wide, 16-foot-high door to the shop’s side and constructed 80 feet of train track. A 107-year-old steam locomotive from the Mid-Continent Railway Museum, you see, needs its space.
“The biggest reason for me in taking this on was to learn how it was done,” Roudebush said. “We’re figuring out what was done and why. It’s a lot of investigation. A project like this is pretty much unheard of.”
The 1385 locomotive is a treasure.
It was built in 1907 for the Chicago & North Western Railroad and is considered vital for the future of the museum, located in North Freedom, west of Baraboo in rural Sauk County. The nonprofit museum’s collection is focused on railroad equipment from between 1885 and 1915, when steam locomotives moved 90 percent of the nation’s passengers and freight.
The C&NW retired the locomotive in 1956 and five years later Mid-Continent members scraped together $2,600 to buy it.
From 1963 to 1998, the locomotive was a workhorse. It pulled cars on the museum’s 3.5 miles of track and in the mid-1980s, pulled the Circus Train for three straight summers from Baraboo to Milwaukee and back. In the 1990s, it made trips on the mainline to Brodhead, Mazomanie and Wausau.
The locomotive, built by the American Locomotive Co.’s Schenectady Works in New York, is on the state and national registers of historic places. When the $2 million restoration project is completed, likely by 2016, the 1385 will become the only operating C&NW steam locomotive in the country and one of only eight that have been preserved.
When it was taken out of service in 1998 for $125,000 in boiler repairs, a closer inspection revealed the engine needed $750,000 in work, but that figure has since grown after more problems were found. Officials have been planning on a restoration since 1997 but fundraising challenges, the recession and a flood at the museum in 2008 further hampered the project. But in 2011, the Wagner Foundation offered a $250,000 matching grant that resulted in a $500,000 infusion. Others have stepped up, but more money is needed to meet the $2 million goal.
The fundraising not only will restore the train but aide the overall health of the museum. In 1998, the last year the 1385 ran, about 50,000 visitors made the trek to North Freedom. The following year, without operating steam, attendance plummeted to half of the previous year.
“Steam is the draw. It’s what attracts people to the museum,” said Don Meyer, restoration project director. “Our goal is to correct even the repairs that were made. It’s like an archeological dig.”
Part of the excavation will be on full display next weekend when an open house is held at SPEC. The idea is to show donors, potential donors and train buffs the work that is being done and the potential. The event, on Saturday and Sunday, is the same weekend as the Mad City Model Railroad Show and Sale at the Alliant Center and corresponds with the museum’s running of its diesel-powered Snow Train event.
But, like a loved one visiting a patient in a hospital ICU, visitors should be prepared.
The 1385, you see, is in pieces, scattered, not only around SPEC’s property, but the Midwest.
SPEC has the 40-foot-long and 10-foot-wide chassis and the engine’s three sets of 63-inch in diameter drive wheels. Two of the sets weigh five tons each. The middle set of wheels tip the scale at 15,000 pounds. The front cow catcher and other pieces lay outside a barn in the snow while the arms that connect to the massive wheels are in a machine shed next to a goat barn.
The wooden cab is being rebuilt in Fond du Lac and the boiler is getting rehabbed in Plymouth, Minn. The tender car, used to carry the locomotive’s fuel to fire the boiler, is in North Freedom. The original tender was beyond repair so DRM Industries in Lake Delton fabricated a new tender, a project that took more than a year.
In about a year, all of the parts will be shipped to SPEC, where the 1385 will be reassembled and tested before being rejoined in North Freedom to the tender.
“This will be repaired for the long haul,” said Grill, 62, who has delayed his retirement until after the locomotive is restored. “She’ll be good for another 100 years of service.”
Roudebush — who has restored his own classic cars and trucks, and his own steam engine tractor, and is working on others — has stripped the 1385’s chassis down to its bare cast steel frame in search of cracks and other faults. Had the single-piece frame been made of cast iron, it likely could not have been repaired, he said. The restoration also revealed that the main cylinder of the locomotive was replaced in 1927, a major job at any time in history. It also needs significant restoration work.
To sandblast the chassis, it was moved outside on homemade rails. One end of the chassis used the front truck assembly of the locomotive to roll the chassis out of the shop on the fabricated rails while the other end was held up by a support that included tires from a B-52 bomber.
“I’m just always thinking of how can we make this thing perfect,” Roudebush said. “It’s a love and passion.”