TOWN OF SPRINGFIELD — The American Locomotive Co. was once one of the largest builders of steam engines in the world.
In 1907, six years after the New York company was formed by a merger of the Schenectady Locomotive Works and seven other companies, ALCO, as it was then known, set a production record. Its 6,200 workers built 942 locomotives, turning out an average of 18 of the steel and cast iron behemoths every week at a cost of about $20,000 each, according to the Schenectady Digital History Archive.
Restoring just one of the 60-ton pieces of history is taking considerably more time and money.
More than two years after one of ALCO’s locomotives was taken apart and shipped 37 miles from North Freedom to a rural machine shop north of Middleton, nearly two years of work still remain on the $2 million rebuild.
The 1385, built for the Chicago & North Western Railroad and owned for over 50 years by the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in central Sauk County, is starting to look like its old self again. But the relic that used to pull the Great Circus Train from Baraboo to Milwaukee and back might not hit the Mid-Continent tracks until 2018.
A project of this magnitude takes patience.
“It’s been a very long, long process,” said Peter Deets, a volunteer with the museum and the last person to fire up the locomotive’s engine before it was taken out of service in 1998. “Everything that’s been done here has equaled if not surpassed original build. And that’s really what our aim is, to return the engine to original build specifications.”
So when an open house is held Feb. 20 and 21 at SPEC Machine, 7175 Riles Road, fans of the massive undertaking will see progress but not a locomotive ready for a tender filled with coal.
The engine’s three sets of 63-inch-diameter drive wheels, one set of which weighs 15,000 pounds, are resting on tracks in the rear of the shop and are connected to the 40-foot-long chassis. The drive arms are attached, much of the locomotive has coats of fresh paint and there are newly minted parts made of steel and brass.
The wooden cab is nearing completion at a shop in Fond du Lac, while the design of the boiler could be completed this spring by Performance Engineering in Waunakee. Instead of using rivets, the boiler will be welded this summer by Hamon Deltak, a maker of industrial boilers and steam generators in Plymouth, Minnesota.
But the bulk of the restoration is being done at SPEC Machine, where owner Steve Roudebush has used lathes and milling machines to repair farm implements and create highly specialized parts and machines for biomedical, manufacturing and food companies. His shop has also made high-tech rat cages for experiments aboard the International Space Station.
Working on the locomotive for Roudebush, who has an affinity for anything steam-related, has been a passion more than a business decision.
“It’s important for me to see it run again,” Roudebush said. “Every part you need to make it, fit it, and see how it affected the 14 pieces in front of it and the 14 pieces that follow it. And that’s what takes so much time, the researching.”
The locomotive was a workhorse for the Chicago & North Western Railroad from 1907 to 1956. When it was retired, Mid-Continent members scraped together $2,600 to buy it in 1961. Beginning in 1963, the locomotive pulled cars on the museum’s 3.5 miles of track but was taken out of service in 1998 for what museum officials thought would be $125,000 in boiler repairs. A closer inspection revealed the engine needed a complete restoration that is now being paid for through donations and grants.
When completed, the 1385 will become the only operating C&NW steam locomotive in the country and one of only eight that have been preserved. But the restoration is about more than just bringing a piece of history back to life.
The 1385 is tied to the future success of Mid-Continent, a nonprofit museum that showcases railroad equipment made between between 1885 and 1915, when steam locomotives moved 90 percent of the nation’s passengers and freight. A working 1385 has the potential to draw thousands of tourists each year to the museum, located a short drive from the tourist hotbed of Wisconsin Dells, officials say.
Roudebush, 52, who grew up in Waunakee and remembers the Circus Train rolling through the village, has used old photos, history books and over 700 blueprint drawings from the Lake States Railway Historical Association in Baraboo to guide him on the restoration.
He also has a series of encyclopedias on locomotive construction from 1908 and another set of 14 books from 1910 that cover topics like engine management and installation, steam engine and valve gears, and riveted joints.
“It all looks like big pieces but every big piece has a whole heap of little pieces rolled into it, and they all need attention and care,” Roudebush said of the locomotive’s design. “It’s been a lot of work because nothing is straightforward.”
The front truck (four smaller wheels that sit in front of the drive wheels) of the locomotive is in pieces, with the frame of the truck being recreated after decades of wear that has compromised much of the steel beyond repair, including the pins and bushings. The footplate of the locomotive, which serves as the connector between the frame and drawbar and needs to withstand massive forces, was littered with cracks and replaced with a stronger version.
An Underwood portable boring bar machine from the 1890s was recently used to bore out one of the locomotive’s cylinders. The machine is a collection of gears, drive shafts and cutting heads driven by an air motor. The antique device is from Mid-Continent’s museum collection and has been used on two other locomotives over the years.
“The machine that they built to maintain the machine still can hold the accuracy and still does everything we need it to do to today’s standards,” Deets, the museum volunteer, said.
“It was designed for this purpose and it’s also honoring the people who built these machines and maintained them.”