NORTH FREEDOM — When talking about their latest project, Mid-Continent Railway Museum officials sound like they’re preparing for a visit from a long-lost family member.
The old Chicago & Northwestern No. 1385 steam locomotive has stood as the iconic image of the museum since its inception 50 years ago.
The engine has traveled some of what are now ghost tracks all over the Midwest, pulled the Circus Train three times, and has been featured in movies and documentaries.
It’s been memorialized as an official listing on both the Wisconsin and National Register of Historic Places.
With an enthusiastic goal of once again having an operating steam locomotive, the task group at the museum is on track to bring the 105-year-old engine back to life as though it never left.
The museum took one really big step toward completing restoration of No. 1385 when its 16,000-pound tender, the car that holds the coal that generates the steam, was hoisted onto its temporary resting spot Friday to await the completion of the engine’s moving parts.
The running gear — made up of the chassis, the large driving wheels, pistons, valves and other moving parts — that carries the boiler, the source of a locomotive’s power, was loaded onto a special trailer provided by Wisconsin & Southern Railroad. It will be trucked down Highway 12 to Spec Machines in Middleton, where it will be further dismantled, repaired and reassembled during the coming months.
The shiny new tender was rebuilt by DRM Industries in Lake Delton, using very little of the old materials.
“We saved hardly anything from the original tender,” project manager Mike Wahl said. “There are a few original pieces on it. The old one was so far gone from rust, it was beyond repair.”
The engine is believed to have been built in 1907, but Wahl said documents for it date back only to 1923.
“It’s a very historical locomotive,” Wahl said. “In its later life, it was all over the Northwestern lines.”
Wahl said No. 1385 is among an elite fleet of only eight left in existence, and the only one in Wisconsin.
“This locomotive is the image of Mid-Continent that people have had for many years,” former general manager Don Meyer said. “It was a good representative for the museum. It was the locomotive we always featured in our publicity.”
The museum has not had an operational steam-powered locomotive since February 2000, and the No. 1385 project is at the heart of the museum’s continued mission to honor the powerful spirit of the steam locomotive heyday in the early 1900s.
The restoration project has been in the planning stages for about 10 years.
The No. 1385 has been out of service since 1998 when its boiler was thought to be beyond immediate repair.
Since then, the property was damaged by the raging flood of 2008, and attendance has decreased to about 50 percent of the 50,000 who once visited the museum each year.
“We’ve been trying a long time to have a steam locomotive in working operation,” Meyer said. “It’s a big draw for the museum. People want to see a locomotive in action.”