Twelve wheels are better than eight

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Lake Superior Railroad Museum's Missabe Road heavyweight office car proudly carries its name on its riveted sides. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Anyone who’s had the chance to ride at the back of an open-platform observation car knows there’s nothing like it. I don’t get to enjoy it very often, but when I do I relish that sensation of well-being as I watch the track unspool behind me. It’s hard to describe, yet the experience is hypnotic.

That goes double when the clattering sounds you hear beneath your feet are the muffled, rhythmic triplets of a 12-wheel heavyweight car.

I felt that familiar rush last weekend on a chartered trip over the Lake Superior Railroad Museum’s North Shore Scenic from Duluth up the coast 27 miles along the former Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range to Two Harbors. The occasion was a birthday celebration for a colleague and old friend, writer Steve Glischinski.

The 'Northland' brings up the rear of a short DM&IR office-car special at Virginia, Minn., in July 1950. Henry J. McCord
The train the museum assembled was a doozy, led by Soo Line FP7 2500-A and consisting of three heavyweight cars: combination car W24, built by ACF in 1912 for the Duluth & Iron Range; coach 33, built by Pullman in 1918 for D&IR; and the office car Northland, built by Pullman in 1916 for the Duluth, Missabe & Northern. Both of those U.S. Steel railroads — D&IR and DM&N — merged in 1938 to form the DM&IR.

The entire train fit the term “heavyweight” to a T, from their clerestory roofs and abundant rivets right down to those six sets of 12-wheel trucks tapping out a beat on the jointed rail of the old Iron Range Division.

The star of the show was the Northland, a gem of the so-called “standard era” of carbuilding, generally speaking the first three decades of the 20th century before the introduction of lightweight, streamlined trains in the mid-1930s. The Northland was the last business car ordered by the DM&N, assigned for the exclusive use of its president, William A. McGonagle.

The 'Northland' and its support car, combine No. W24, is outside Two Harbors, Minn., on the rear of a mining engineers' special on Sept. 14, 1974. Steve Glischinski photo
The car matched the man. McGonagle was a legendary figure on the Iron Range. He died in 1930, still on the job after 48 years with the railroad. He was also a founder of Minnesota’s giant 3M Company. Two Great Lakes vessels carried his name, a 1908 Duluth harbor fireboat/tug and a 1916 U.S. Steel 600-foot, 12,000-ton iron-ore carrier.

Befitting McGonagle and his guests, the Northland has all the features you’d expect, including a small but efficient galley; a dining room adorned with leaded-glass cabinetry; a single stateroom; a generous observation lounge outfitted with open-section berths and seating for 27; and, of course, that open rear platform protected by gleaming brass railings. Walking through car, you’re surrounded by the warm red glow of mahogany.

Essentially unchanged in appearance from the day it was constructed, the 82-foot-long Northland puts the “heavy” in heavyweight: it tips the scales at a substantial 100 tons, at the high end of cars of the standard era. And therein lies a tale.

From ceiling to floor, the 'Northland' looks much as it did when Pullman crafted it in 1916. Kevin P. Keefe photo
At the time the car was built, most business cars boasted a considerable amount of interior wood paneling, stained and varnished to a high gloss, a mark of prestige. But that wouldn’t do for an asset of U.S. Steel. No, the Northland truly had to be an all-steel car.

But what about that mahogany interior? In a bit of trompe l’oeil magic, the artisans in Pullman’s paint shop painted the interior steel surface to look like wood, using feathers to create a delicate and highly realistic grain. As you stroll through the car, a simple tap on the wall betrays what lies beneath.

The car has received mechanical upgrades over the years, including roller-bearing journals in 1949, ice-activated air conditioning and a propane generator in 1950, a propane hot water boiler in 1988, and, at various intervals, updates to its 32-volt D.C. electrical system.

The warm glow of mahogany fills the dining room — but the 'wood' is really skillfully painted steel. Kevin P. Keefe photo
The Northland also has Hollywood cred. It appeared in the 1994 Disney film Iron Will, an adventure story about a championship dog-sled race, starring Kevin Spacey. The Northland posed as Great Northern President James J. Hill’s private car. The interior was damaged by temperature extremes during the course of the filming, so a painter was found to re-create the original faux mahogany finish, right down to the feathered wood grain.

The museum purchased the Northland and its companion support car W24 from the DM&IR in 2003 and the car remains one of the institution’s prized artifacts.

Lucius Beebe would have approved of Glischinski’s birthday train. The flamboyant man of railroad letters never quite got over the decline of the standard cars. “Much that is spurious has been fobbed off by adroit advertising as progress in passenger comfort and convenience,” he once wrote. He went on to describe lightweight trains as “a bill of goods.”

The cadence of six-wheel trucks on jointed rail is the soundtrack for a view from the 'Northland's' open rear platform. Kevin P. Keefe photo
If Beebe were still around, he wouldn’t have to ride just the Northland to get back to 12-wheel railroading. A number of railroad museums have standard cars on their operating roster, including a New Haven parlor car at the Valley Railroad in Connecticut, a Soo Line dining car at Mid-Continent Railway Museum in Wisconsin, and a Reading office car at the Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania.

Several members of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners offer their heavyweight cars for charter, some of which are former office cars. One of the most traveled cars is Dover Harbor, a 1923 Pullman sleeper-buffet-lounge owned and operated by the Washington, D.C., Chapter, NRHS.

But I suspect the Northland has a unique status as the only heavyweight office car the general public can occasionally enjoy, operating on the tracks of the railroad that owned it for most of its life, between two of its original stations. That’s special, in my book, enough to make me want to return soon to Duluth, pull up a chair on the platform, smell the fresh northwoods air, and, like William A. McGonagle himself, enjoy the mesmerizing clicks of those 12 wheels. 

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