Scenic Fall Color Train Ride

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 La Crosse, Wisconsin; the other trip goes north to Boylston near Superior, Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Road Classic Fall Color Excursion Train.

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.

Tamarack Trees provided some of the most vivid color on the route from Minneapolis to Boylston, WI

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 d’oeuvres 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 aficionados and would have been more than happy to talk trains and railroading.

Inside the Wisconsin Valley Lounge Car enjoyed by First Class ticket passengers
Milwaukee Road St. Croix Valley Rail Car
First Class Passengers in the St. Croix Valley car had a different seating arrangement than we did

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.

The Milwaukee Road Super Dome Observation Car
Inside the Super Dome – comfortable dining and riding
Cedar Rapids Sky Top Lounge & Observation Car
Inside the Sky Top Lounge Car

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.


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4 Thoughts to “Scenic Fall Color Train Ride”

  1. It has been my experience that seats on steam train excursions fill up pretty fast after tickets sales are announced. You can keep track of events and excursions on the train website at and send a note via their contact page. Also you could subscribe to their membership and get their quarterly newsletter.


  2. Janet Zierath

    How soon do we have to “book” a first class ticket for the fall colors on 2017? What about an overnight on the train? Booking for that,how far in advance? Cost?

  3. Mike,

    You may be able to find a contact on the Friends of 261 website – They do a good amount of renovating of these classic railroading cars and may have a source for you. Sorry but I don’t have a particular name or e-mail contact for you.



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