Two North Western R-1s are better than one

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, October 24, 2019

C&NW 1385 — one of two R-1 4-6-0s now under restoration — is reflected in a puddle at Wisconsin's Mid-Continent Railway Museum in February 1982. John Gruber
As I turned the car off four-lane U.S. 12 and onto a county road, I found myself beguiled once again by the beauty of the Wisconsin countryside in October. The windshield revealed a postcard scene of neat-as-a-pin farms and fields, washed green and gold in morning sunlight, ponderous combines raising clouds of dust here and there. 

“This doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d build a steam locomotive,” I thought to myself.

But it is. Out past Middleton, where the sprawl of suburban Madison gives way to America’s dairyland, I found the large, handsome family farm of Steve Roudebush. The place is also home to Roudebush’s SPEC Machine, a custom shop catering to a variety of steam traction-engine projects — with one very big exception. 

There, in the tallest of various outbuildings, I discovered an old friend, Chicago & North Western R-1 4-6-0 No. 1385, well on the way toward returning to steam, its gleaming new welded boiler resting atop a rebuilt frame sporting a sparkling set of restored running gear. As Roudebush showed me around, I found it easy to believe that it won’t be all that long before the 1385 is back on home rails at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum (MCRM), 40 miles to the northwest.

I also felt a slight sense of déjà vu, because I’d seen a similar boiler just two weeks before, resting on temporary wheels alongside a turntable in Owosso, Mich., where the Steam Railroading Institute (SRI) is rebuilding 1385’s sister engine, C&NW No. 175, acquired in 2017 from storage in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. 

Mid-Continent's 1385 is getting a new, welded boiler, pictured recently atop the engine's reconditioned running gear at SPEC Machine in Middleton, Wis. Kevin P. Keefe
Anyone who loves the North Western R-1 — and that includes me — will be pinching him or her self when two of them are running again. 

A little background: in its heyday on the North Western, the R-1 was as ubiquitous as the Geep would be in the diesel era. The C&NW fielded 325 of them, far more than any other steam class on the railroad, all of them built between 1901 and 1908. They roamed virtually the entire North Western system, from the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the prairies of Minnesota to the industrial tracks of the Chicago area.

With an operating boiler pressure of 200 psi and a bit more than 47 square feet of grate area, the R-1 could crank up nearly 40,000 pounds of tractive force, enough to do the job it was assigned. With its relatively tall drivers — 63 inches — it could make pretty good speed, too. So it was perfect for hauling freight on branch lines, but it could also move a passenger train at a good clip. As I said, the Geep of its day. 

The two R-1s being restored are not identical (a third R-1, No. 444, is displayed at the Forney Transportation Museum in Denver). The 1385 looks a bit more antiquated, with its Stephenson valve gear and canted inboard valves. The 175, conversely, was one of a handful of R-1s equipped with Walschaerts valve gear and outboard valves. 

The 1385, built by Alco in 1907, already is famous. The engine was 20 years into its career at Mid-Continent when in the 1980s it was tapped to haul the Prosperity Special, an exhibition train C&NW created to tour the entire system in 1982–83. It also performed for hundreds of thousands when it pulled the Great Circus Train into Milwaukee in 1985, ’86, and ’87.

SPEC Machine's owner Steve Roudebush stands in his shop with 1385. Kevin P. Keefe
The 1385 was removed from service in 1998 when its boiler reached the point of no return. This isn’t the place to recount the various twists and turns affecting the locomotive over the ensuing years, but the good news is that the engine should be back at MCRM before too long, the recipient of approximately $1.25 million in donations. A major anonymous donor provided most of the funds, but to date more than 1,100 people made smaller contributions since the rebuild resumed in earnest in 2011. 

Of that total, nearly $700,000 went into the design and fabrication of the new welded boiler, which was constructed at Continental Fabricators, Inc., a large St. Louis-based firm that has managed to work on a number of locomotives while pursuing its basic business of industrial pressure vessels. The new boiler arrived at SPEC Machine aboard a truck on September 25. 

Now married to the frame and running gear, the boiler will be receiving its final outfitting in the months to come. When the time arrives, the engine will be lifted atop a lowboy truck and hauled to North Freedom over a route Roudebush says has already been meticulously laid out. 

The craftsmanship Roudebush and his son, Tyler, bring to the project is obvious when you walk through their shop, scattered with parts for traction engines and the 1385, including the latter’s brand-new cab. “If you think of boilers as widgets, this is just another widget, only larger,” says Roudebush. “You’ve got to do a great job, either way.” 

C&NW 175, another of the road's versatile R-1s, will add a new dimension to the Steam Railroading Institute's operations, currently centered on Pere Marquette 2-8-4 1225. C&NW Historical Society
Meanwhile, nearly 300 miles to the east in Michigan, No. 175’s boiler rests outside the Owosso shop housing the Ten-Wheeler’s very-much-alive companion, Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225, now being prepped for the SRI’s hugely popular North Pole Express trains in November and December. 

The 175, turned out by Alco in 1908, figures to be back among the living before long, although in this case the SRI mechanical department will be rebuilding the R-1’s existing boiler. Ultrasonic testing shows the vessel to have good-to-adequate thickness, although the lower half of the firebox will need to be replaced. The boiler has been scraped, cleaned, painted, and marked up for the testing. 

The SRI has applied for a large grant from the state of Michigan to enable the boiler repairs, and it hopes to hear good news on the funding in November. But much more work will need to be done, including replacement of the cab, air pump, piping, reservoirs, and one of the engine’s eccentric rods. 

Once they’re back in steam, the two R-1s will make for an interesting contrast. In North Freedom, the 1385 will appear to be regal, a tall, commanding presence surrounded by smaller equipment. But it will look right at home on Mid-Continent’s rural 3.5-mile line, living up to its original mandate by North Western to be an engine that can go anywhere.

The Steam Railroading Institute will recondition C&NW 175's existing boiler, seen recently at SRI in Owosso, Mich. Kevin P. Keefe
In Owosso, the 175 will be overshadowed by the big Berkshire over on the next track, but the 4-6-0 will enable the SRI to be much more flexible in its operations over host Great Lakes Central. Expect a wider variety of steam operations.  

Back in September 1982, when Chicago & North Western leased the 1385 for its exhibition train, it issued a press release that described the old Ten-Wheeler in matter-of-fact terms: “The locomotive is a North Western R-1 class 4-6-0 unit . . . It is a GP (General Purpose) locomotive built in 1907 by the American Locomotive Company at Schenectady, N.Y.”

So even the railroad thought of it as a Geep. It will be great to see both of them back at work, doing exactly what C&NW bought them to do more than a century ago. 

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