TOWN OF SPRINGFIELD — When Steve Roudebush and Bruce Grill agreed to help restore a 1907 steam locomotive, they figured their portion of the project would take about 14 months.

The initial plan was to repair the chassis and running gear in their machine shop and ship the project somewhere else for it to receive the boiler, cab and firebox. Once assembled, it would return to Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom to serve as a major draw for the tourism attraction.

That was nearly four years ago.

No. 1385 steam locomotive

Steve Roudebush, owner of SPEC Machine, pauses on the original sand dome of the No. 1385 steam locomotive. The dome holds sand that can be spread on the railroad tracks with an internal auger to improve traction. 

The bulk of the work has stayed in the SPEC Machine shop north of Middleton on Riles Road, Grill has retired but the end of the $2 million project may finally be in sight.

And if the schedule stays true, the locomotive, that years ago pulled the Great Circus Train, may be belching steam and pulling passenger cars by next summer through the wooded, rolling terrain of Sauk County.

“We have a lot to do but a short time to do it in,” Roudebush, 53, said last week. “I don’t even want to know how many hours I’ve put into this. My invoices don’t reflect half of it but it’s been a passion.”

Mid-Continent Railway Museum Steam Engine 1385

Steam and smoke pour out over the grey-snow covered Sauk County landscape at North Freedom during an annual Snow Run at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in 1986. The damp, chilly air didn't slow people from looking, photographing and riding the No. 1385 steam train that in 1984, was used to film footage for a Mel Gibson movie.

And one of the biggest and most expensive projects for the locomotive is about to begin.

Steel will be cut beginning this week at Continental Fabrication in St. Louis, where the 30-foot-long and 68-inch-diameter boiler will be built. Other steel from the company will be cut and shipped to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

That’s where Gary Bensman, who founded Diversified Rail Services in 1979, will use a 1920s-era fabrication machine to bend steel up to three-quarters-of-an-inch thick to create the 30,000-pound firebox that measures 9-feet long, 6-feet wide and 7-feet high.

Mid-Continent Railway Museum Steam Engine 1385

This photo, from 1990, shows Paul Swanson stoking the firebox of the No. 1385 steam engine at Mid-Continent Railway in North Freedom. A new, 30,000-pound firebox is being built as part of the restoration of the locomotive.

When the firebox, used to heat water in the 10,000-pound boiler, is completed, it will be shipped to St. Louis, attached to the boiler and the whole works, valued at $700,000, trucked to SPEC Machine to be placed on the locomotive’s chassis.

“It’s a complicated process with lots of parts,” said Bensman, whose company specializes in locomotive rebuilds. “The fit of it at the firebox on the frame, the basic form of the fire box, the size of it, the fit of the cab on the boiler, the fit of the boiler at the front of the cylinders is all the same (as the original), it’s just little details that are different.”

No. 1385 steam locomotive

Steve Roudebush, owner of SPEC Machine near Middleton, makes his way past the No. 1385 steam locomotive under restoration in his shop. By this summer, the boiler and firebox will be added with hopes of making it run again at Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom. Once completed, the locomotive will weigh around 180,000 pounds.

But the work isn’t being limited to the locomotive. Roudebush is spending $80,000 of his own money for a 1,500-square-foot addition to his machine shop that will also include an 18-foot-high overhead door. Once completed, 50 feet of railroad track will be built to roll the chassis out of the existing shop where this summer a crane will lift the chassis and drive system onto a different set of tracks that lead into the new addition.

The expansion will provide adequate space for the No. 1385 and more work space for future steam engine and locomotive projects planned by Roudebush, who is still doing other jobs for his business.

No. 1385 steam locomotive

Steve Roudebush, left, holds plans for the firebox for the No. 1385 steam locomotive. The firebox is being built at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee, beginning this week. Once completed, the firebox will be shipped to St. Louis and attached to the boiler. The $700,000 boiler and firebox will then be shipped to Roudebush's shop where it will be installed on the locomotive's original chassis. At right is Brett Morley of Performance Engineering in Waunakee, who has been instrumental in the design of the boiler. Tyler Roudebush, Steve's son, who now works in the shop is seen in the background. 

“It’s something not many people can say they’ve done,” Rodebush said of the locomotive project. “My day starts at 4:30 in the morning and usually is done around 6:30, 7 o’clock at night.”

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The locomotive, built in 1907 by the American Locomotive Co.’s Schenectady Works in New York, was a workhorse for the Chicago & North Western Railroad from 1907 to 1956. When it was retired, Mid-Continent members in 1961 scraped together $2,600 to purchase the behemoth.

Beginning in 1963, the locomotive pulled cars on the museum’s 3.5 miles of track and in the mid-1980s, pulled Circus World Museum’s Circus Train for three straight summers from Baraboo to Milwaukee and back.

In the 1990s, the locomotive made trips on the mainline to Brodhead, Mazomanie and Wausau.

It 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. The locomotive is considered vital for the future of the Mid-Continent museum, located west of Baraboo, that is focused on railroad equipment from between 1885 and 1915, when steam locomotives moved 90 percent of the nation’s passengers and freight.

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.

SPEC has hosted open houses each of the last three years on the same weekends as the Mad City Model Railroad Show & Sale but this year is skipping an open house to focus on completing the project. Plus, for the casual observer, the 40-foot-long chassis, with its three sets of 63-inch-diameter drive wheels, one set of which weighs 15,000 pounds, looks about the same as it did last year at this time.

Mid-Continent Railway Museum Steam Engine 1385

Shrouded in escaping steam, a passenger train from the historic collection of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum crosses the ice-covered Baraboo River near North Freedom, WI. This 75 year old steam engine will pull excursion trains for visitors to the museum's annual Snow Train 1982.

Over the last year, the 10,000-pound front-wheel trucks have been installed, and the excentric blades and straps used to drive the pistons and crosshead slides used to guide the pistons have all been refurbished. Bearings have been installed, the cab has been delivered and, recently, 125 members of the state Historical Steam Engine Association visited.

“There are a lot of things that are finished and back on the engine,” 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. “It’s a far cry from where we were two years ago.”

No. 1385 steam locomotive

Steve Roudebush stands near the drive wheels of the No. 1385 locomotive.

Projects that will be undertaken in the next year include refurbishing brakes, installing pistons, rehabbing the 3,000-pound superheater header used to collect and transfer steam, and refurbishing the dome that holds sand used to improve traction. Roudebush expects the firebox and boiler to be delivered by June, which means he could be testing the locomotive in his shop this summer.

No. 1385 steam locomotive

Components of the No. 1385 steam locomotive await restoration in SPEC Machine's workshop in the town of Springfield.

“We will steam it up here,” Roudebush said. “There’s been a lot of parts and pieces.”

Brett Morley, who came to the U.S. from Australia 17 years ago for a job at Uniek in Waunakee, is now president of Performance Engineering in Waunakee. He has been involved with the design of the boiler and has worked with Roudebush on other projects, including fixing the bell supports in the three-bell tower at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in nearby Ashton.

The locomotive project offers a unique opportunity for Morley, even though he works in a business where different projects come through his door on a daily basis.

“We want this boiler to resemble the old boiler as much as possible,” Morley said. “There’s this old-world technology but also applying a lot of new-world technology in the fact that there’s a lot of computerized input going into this. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of this it comes back to doing things the way they were doing it 100 years ago using the same equipment and same technologies.”

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Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at