Trains magazine celebrates its 80th year with Soo Line No. 1003

on Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Trains is turning 80 in November and what better way to celebrate than with a steam engine near and dear to Wisconsin’s heart. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic quashing the plans for our evening soirée (stay tuned to next year for that), our celebration remains with 50 lucky registered folks who will enjoy a day with Soo Line No. 1003 on Nov. 15.

Editor Jim Wrinn has hosted several photo charters across the U.S. in recent years. These events are complicated on so many levels, not just for us, but more so for the railroaders and crew who must prepare special locomotives and other equipment, as well as operating logistics on host railroads, to put on an exquisite show tasty enough to draw a crowd. This is a sold-out show, and everything must run as smooth as possible. So, what does it take? To quell my curiosity about preparing a century-old steam engine for a day out and also to learn more about the star of our party, I delivered a coal load of questions to Ken Ristow, mechanic, fireman, and one of the regular engineers for the 1003, and he graciously agreed to indulge me. He’s also involved with crew scheduling and event planning. Like in many organizations, the nonprofit, Hartford, Wis.-based Steam Locomotive Heritage Association’s members wear many hats to sustain their goal: keep the engine running. 


A Soo Line No. 1003 excursion train pauses behind a Metra train, until it can pull into the Fox Lake Station for passengers to board and then head to Chicago in 2017. Tim Pitzen photo

Q: In general, what types of maintenance must be performed before No. 1003 can run successfully for an event?
A: In general, maintenance can be items we tend to as we prepare for an event that keep the 1003 operational. When an annual inspection is due, then maintenance includes required work inclusive of numerous items required by law. This work is performed in stages and time frames that allow for proper inspection with the FRA, which culminates with a live steam test inspection to be placed in service with the FRA. Within that annual inspection, other items needing maintenance and attention are addressed as well, whether minor or major. Work on our rolling stock that accompanies 1003 is also done as needed. 

Q: How long does it take to prepare the 1003 for an event such as our photo charter?
A: Depending on what we have planned, the total amount of time with a full volunteer group (16 people) can be cumulative of six months to prep an engine after the annual inspection has expired, and it’s due for the inspection to be renewed. If we operate within the time frame of the inspection, and the locomotive has previously operated, it can take 4-7 days to prepare for another outing.

Q: The photo charter’s host railroad is Watco-owned, regional railroad Wisconsin & Southern. How does your organization gain permission to operate on it?
A: In general terms, it starts with a request or idea and then developing a plan, meeting with railroad officials and event organizers, and editing the plan so that it's deemed feasible and is accepted by the railroad. Planning goes through stages and begins several months ahead of time, with a lot of communication between the proper channels.

Q: Besides work to the engine, what other preparations are necessary?
A: In addition to arrangements with the host railroad, we have to schedule crews, order supplies, and get insurance. For an away-from-the-shop outing, we also have to plan for hotel rooms, crew transportation, and plan for places where we can refill fuel and water for the locomotive. This behind-the-scenes work takes a lot of time.

Q: What safety measures/precautions are taken before and during an event, pertaining to the engine, the property, etc.?
A: In a stationary display of our locomotive, we follow any rules or regulations defined and required by the host railroad, and our own group’s rules and procedures. We promote and practice common railroad safety. We limit or prohibit cab visits to promote safety. We will also staff the perimeter of our equipment with identifiable people to help keep guests safe around the railroad equipment. While operating, we follow railroad rules and orders, along with directions by the pilot crew and standard operating practices, all in the name of safety. 

Q: This Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Mikado 2-8-2 L-1 class locomotive was built by Alco in 1913 in Schenectady, N.Y. What is its tender capacity?
A: It holds 10,000 gallons of water, but if we haul our tank car, we get an additional 20,000 gallons. It is listed for 17 tons of coal, but with the extended coal boards, we can get 19 tons when fully loaded.

Q: What is special about the locomotive compared to other steam locomotives? In appearance, mechanics, handling, other?
A: It is special because of its age at 107 years. But what also makes it special is that it is a Wisconsin locomotive, and the Soo Line had some of its own specific traits. Mechanically, it’s unique because it has indirect Walschaerts valve gear where forward motion is in the top half of the valve gear link. That is a rarity. Other unique features are its large cylinders, and boiler pressure maximum of 170 psi. 

Q: What do you find most enjoyable? Running the engine? Maintaining it? Other?
A: Both are actually rewarding. It is an educational experience working on the locomotive, learning the bare bones of how the machine works through making a repair or enhancement. Sometimes the dirty work in tight spaces isn’t glamorous, but your aim is the end result. Working on the locomotive makes you appreciate how machines were built without the modern conveniences we have today. Operating is enjoyable and rewarding also. As much fun as it is to operate a locomotive, it’s also a job of focus, dedication, and discipline. A reward is being able to operate and validate your work and repairs, and then to see others enjoy, appreciate, and learn from what our group does. It also gives me a chance to pass on what I have learned and experienced by teaching to others a skill or sharing an experience, while being part of an operating display that can educate the public about what once was. In addition, throughout my 21 years of involvement with the 1003, I’ve made many friends and have met a lot of people. Some have become lifetime friendships.

Q: What is the organization's biggest challenge? Biggest opportunity?
A: The same challenges for anyone else who operates steam these days: It is a matter of finding an operational venue, being able to fund it, along with other things like insurance, for example. Sometimes running the locomotive is the easiest part. Passenger trains or excursions are not easy or common as they once were. The biggest challenges are finding places to operate, determining what to operate, and figuring how to fund it for those outside of a museum setting. 

Thanks to the Steam Locomotive Heritage Association, Wisconsin & Southern, and the whole crew for helping us to commemorate our 80th year in such a grand way. What better manner to celebrate than with a camera in hand, coal smoke in the air, and smiles on our faces! Party on!


Engineer Ken Ristow inside the cab of Soo Line No. 1003. Paul Swanson photo


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