Friends of 261 Fall Train Ride
The group of volunteers (members of the non-profit Railroading Heritage of Midwest Ameria), who support the Milwaukee Road Steam Locomotive #261 and classic railroading, operate a number of train excursions throughout the year. Included among these are a fall color train operating out of Minneapolis offering two trips on an October weekend. One trip goes south along the Mississippi River to LaCrosse, Wisconsin; the other trip goes north to Boylston near Superior, Wisconsin. In years past the fall excursion trains were powered by the magnificent Milwaukee Road No. 261 Steam Engine. However during the last four years, the volunteers have been doing significant maintenance on Number 261, undertaking a major ReBuild, including having to re-manufacture certain parts no longer available. So during this time the classic passenger cars & train rides have been powered by Amtrak diesel engines.
Previously we had experience with the Fall Color trip along the Mississippi River, so this year we decided to try the trip north to Boylston, Wisconsin (just south of Superior). Some of the trees had already lost their leaves and we drew an overcast, gray day so the fall color was more modest, but I found that looking out the window at colorful trees isn’t the most exciting or fun part of taking this train ride. The fun part is stepping back in time to get a taste of a bygone era of comfortable cross-county travel by rail.
The trains are fully staffed by the volunteers of the Friends of 261 organization who go to great lengths to simulate what it was like to ride during the heyday of classic railroading. The ticket agents, conductors, stewards, porters, firemen, engineers and other train personnel were outfitted in authentic apparel and were constantly on hand to ask how they could serve you. We had first class tickets and we certainly received first class service in addition to riding in specially equipped first class coaches.
Our first class ticket entitled us ride in the Wisconsin Valley Lounge car and amenities included breakfast and lunch, plus unlimited beverages throughout the day. In the afternoon we were also offered a selection of hors’doerves plus added beverage options of wine and beer. As you’ll see in the pictures the setting in the first class coaches were overstuffed living room style chairs verses the bench seats you may have experienced riding commuter trains. Car attendants and stewards were constantly asking if we needed a beverage or asking “Can I help you with anything.” What I hadn’t realized when we bought our tickets a few months earlier was this would be a total re-enactment of classic railroading. Afterwards I wished I had asked more questions of the volunteer train personnel about the cars and trains as just about all of them are railroading afficinados and would have been more than happy to talk trains and railroading.
The coach ticket holders rode in more conventional train cars with bench seats. However the seats were spacious and well upholstered, more generously appointed than the commuter trains I rode as a young professional working in downtown Chicago. These cars were designed for cross-country travel to accomodate people spending several hours on the train. Coach passengers were able to get food and beverage service in the concessions car which was actually a baggage car specially equipped for food and beverage service plus offering a small selection of gift items.
Premium ticket holders traveled in the luxury of the Hiawatha Cedar Rapids Sky Top Observation Car or the Super Dome Dining & Observation Car each offering panoramic views of the countryside plus even more luxurious seating than the first class coaches offered. While the first class passengers received a box lunch (very nicely prepared however), premium customers were served a hot lunch directly from the full service kitchen in the lower level of the the Super Dome. While I can’t imagine a higher level of service than we received in first class there were probably some elements of service to premium passengers that went beyond what we received.
There were also two sleeper cars on our train occupied by special railroading guests who were taking both the Saturday and Sunday tours plus staying overnight in the train. Each of these cars had common parlor or sitting rooms in addition to the private sleeping cabins and day suites. Not all the cabins were occupied so it was fun to peak in them to see what they were like. Some cabins included a private washroom in addition to seats and convertable bunks.
Next year Steam Locomotive #261 will be back in service and will be running these fall excursions. I think we’ll ride the southern trip along the Mississippi River. If you are interested in sampling this railroading experience, I suggest you not wait too long when tickets become available, particularly if you are interested in the premium or first class tickets because they fill up fast.
Go here > to the Friends of 261 website for information on excursions, stats and pictures on the engines and rail cars.
The website also has more pictures of the classic train cars here.
Here’s an earlier article and pictures on Fall Color Steam Train Ride along the Mississippi featuring No 261. Some interesting stats on 261. With its coal and water tenders attached, No. 261 is 109 feet long. The engine stands 15.5 feet high. The engine itself weights 260,000 pounds and its total working weight with its two tenders is about 460,000 pounds. The engine has 16 wheels, including 8 driving wheels that are about 6 foot in diameter.
More recent pictures of 261. In 2014, we captured pictures and video of the 261 Steam Locomotive as it pulled into Duluth, Minneosta.
Classic Train Video.
Here’s a video of our train ride that includes a shot of the train as it rounded a bend in the tracks as it was about to cross into Wisconsin.