Lessons from the Saginaw Timber No. 2 / Mid-Continent fiasco

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, February 28, 2017

By now, everyone who cares knows that an arbitrator ruled that Mid-Continent Railway Museum owes $200,000 to the private owner of a newly rebuilt logging 2-8-2 that once plied the non-profit’s five-mile railroad near Baraboo, Wis. They also know that the ruling also calls for the museum to pay to relocate Skip Lichter’s Saginaw Timber No. 2 to wherever he chooses. And does Skip ever have choices: So far he’s fielded proposals from 17 organizations from nearby and across the country. Moving heavy equipment isn’t easy or cheap, so I figure the move will lay at least another $100,000 on top of the $200,000 that’s the arbitrator ordered paid. It’s a tall unexpected bill for any non-profit, no matter how financially healthy or unhealthy they may be.

So, everyone -- from those with grease under their fingernails to those who volunteer on boards and those who just care about saving old trains – has a stake in this.

It seems that everybody wants to run Skip’s engine, except the preservation railroad where it’s currently based. I’m not going to go into why things got to the point that it had to go to court, but as one who is into his 31st year as a volunteer in preservation railroading, from scraping rust on Saturdays to wrestling my mind through another strategic planning session for board members, I do see merit in studying the situation and learning from it. A friend of mine in train service reviews accident reports as a hobby in an effort to avoid trouble himself. By watching other’s mistakes, he’s sharpening his own skills. So I reluctantly invite you to continue, but before we go on, I have a confession to make.

 I hate writing about this for four reasons. First, I like Skip. He’s a dedicated, enthusiastic steam locomotive preservationist who has given years of his life and his all to see this locomotive returned to service. I’ve never seen anyone more committed to his efforts. He’s getting on up there in years, and he deserves to see his engine run again. I think so much of the guy that I even put on coveralls, gloves, and eye protection to help jacket and lag the engine one Saturday in a freezing cold engine house. I was there for a test fire a couple of autumns ago, and seeing see Skip’s smile and reaction to steam on the gauge was the best part of the day. I hope the finds a good home on a new railroad, where they will be kind to him.

 Second, I have long admired Mid-Continent. Growing up In the 1960s and 1970s, in magazine and book pages, it came across as a magical place where steam had a comfortable retirement home.

The role it played in the Chicago & North Western’s early 1980s steam program by providing Ten-Wheeler No. 1385 was nothing less than amazing. My first visit in 1996 was impressive, and when I moved to Wisconsin in 2004, I was delighted to be just 2 hours away. Its restoration of a state fish restocking car, its wood car collection, and so many other things are worthy of praise. It has great folks who are terrific volunteers. I’ve also made a handful of trips there to do a little hands-on shop work from time to time, most notably helping to disassemble No. 1385 on a cold winter’s day. Third, I adore steam locomotives. And fourth, thanks to my mother’s influences, I place a high value on peace in the family, whether it’s blood relatives, my wife and her family, those I work with, and the brotherhood and sisterhood of railway preservation.

I detect that the arbitrator’s decision has stung hard. Normally, the museum holds an open house the third weekend in February to show off progress on No. 1385’s rebuild. This year, the museum deferred, saying it wanted to concentrate on restoration work. The group also had no presence at what was a sizeable train show in Madison the same weekend, either. Maybe they’re gun shy right now, and I can’t blame them if they are, or maybe they are just too busy to show up. Either way, they’ve got to be sore.

 As to the lessons, one is readily apparent to me: Don’t allow privately owned rolling stock on your museum. It just always leads to problems. No matter how well intentioned things are, the emotions and passions that drive steam and railway preservationists can often send them clashing with one another over the needs and priorities of the private rolling stock vs. the museum’s own needs and priorities. If you do have privately-owned rolling stock at your museum, make sure there are clear, well thought out written agreements in place that spell out the responsibilities of the owner and the museum with regards to maintenance, upkeep, work, disposition, and a whole host of issues. But again, just don’t do it.

 As to the rest of the lessons, they’ll be along soon. All of us involved in railway preservation should watch carefully to see how the museum’s board moves forward through what will be a most painful, difficult, and awkward time. How will they find the money to pay the award? Are governance or policy changes ahead? What’s the future of steam power at this railroad? And most importantly, what is the future of this museum?

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