Heritage railroading still builds families

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, April 9, 2018

The late Tom O'Brien explains the workings of Mid-Continent Railway Museum's C&NW 4-6-0 to a group of children in 1982. Drake Hokanson
So often, railroading is a family affair, with a love of the business handed down from generation to generation. We all know people who are third- or even fourth-generation railroaders. My own grandfather took the same job his father did, manning levers in interlocking towers on the Chicago & Eastern Illinois, and for a time my own father worked on a C&EI track gang. Doubtless many of you reading this blog can make a similar claim.

When I say “love of the business,” I include the wide world of heritage railroading. Trains are trains, whether the cargo is TOFC or tourists, or the railroad is 15,000 miles or 5. Running vintage trains on a museum railroad gets in the blood as much as working on a Class I.

I thought about this recently when the son of an old friend of mine reached out to me via social media. The last time I saw Macklin “Mack” O’Brien and his older brother Colin, in the late 1990s, they were energetic little kids tugging on their parents’ sleeves in Old Sacramento near the California State Railroad Museum. Tom and Nancy O’Brien were bringing these guys up the right way: giving them a generous dose of good old-fashioned steam-era railroading.

Hearing from Mack brought back a rush of memories of his dad. Tom O’Brien was one of the most remarkable railroaders I’ve ever known. I use that term “railroader” with the full knowledge that almost all his experience came from working trains at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum (MCRM) in North Freedom Wis. Tom brought passion and exactitude to everything his did, especially as a steam locomotive engineer, which is just one of the many reasons his unexpected death on December 5, 1999, was such a shock. He was only 49. 

I got to know Tom when I first worked briefly at Kalmbach in the mid-1970s and began to make a habit of driving the 130 miles from Milwaukee to North Freedom. Tom would drive up on weekends from Iowa City, where he was an engineering technician for the University of Iowa. We’d already hit it off earlier at organizational meetings of the old Tourist Railway Association, Inc. (TRAIN).

My visits often involved another of Tom’s friends, Drake Hokanson, another Iowa native and now a noted author and photographer. The three of us would camp out in photographer Philip R. Hastings’ caboose, an immaculately maintained Rock Island outside-braced car that Phil had parked out behind the MCRM shop, joining a long line of other cabooses and privately owned cars. Phil’s caboose was the best of the bunch. Here’s how I described it at the time:

Tom O'Brien, widely recognized as a consummate heritage railroad professional, was at home on either side of C&NW 1385's cab. Chris Burger
“It made for a splendid cabin in the woods. It had a big old oil stove adequate for taking the bite out of a frigid night, even in February when the Snow Train was running. Its restroom-green interior was decorated with just enough of the ephemera of old-time railroading to help us imagine it was 1946 and we were stuck in a siding in Mason City or El Reno.”

We had a fine time in those days, and I could already tell Tom was headed for positions of leadership at MCRM, and maybe beyond. He truly loved railroading and brought to it a professional attitude grounded in his understanding that running trains — any kind of train — was serious business. He comported himself accordingly as he worked his way up the ladder in Mid-Continent’s operating department. 

Others outside North Freedom began to notice Tom’s talents, and over the years he became a force within TRAIN, eventually joining the organization’s board of directors. Today, TRAIN is remembered as a predecessor of the Association of Tourist Railroads and Railway Museums. 

Undoubtedly the highlight of Tom’s railroad career was the brief but spectacular appearance of Mid-Continent’s greatest treasure, Chicago & North Western 4-6-0 No. 1385, on the C&NW’s Prosperity Special, an exhibition train that toured several Midwestern states in 1982 and ’83. The train was under the direction of Chris Burger, at the time assistant vice president and division manager of North Western’s Wisconsin Division. Tom, an experienced hand on the 1385, was tapped to be part of the crew. 

O'Brien's sons Mack (left) and Colin carry on the family tradition at Mid-Continent. Here they stand with an ex-GN heater car during a recent Snow Train weekend. Richard Gruber
“Tom was one of the principal figures at Mid-Continent who gave me the comfort that we [the C&NW] could depend upon the organization and the locomotive,” recalls Burger, now retired after a long career in Class I and regional railroad management. “Tom always insisted on a high level of professionalism. Mid-Continent in those days was considered one of the premier steam operators in the country and I think Tom was one of the big reasons for that.”

There was so much remaining for Tom to accomplish when he left us in 1999. I often think of him when I contemplate the challenges facing heritage railroading today and say to myself, “We still need Tom!”

As my opening comments suggest, there’s more to this story. A family tradition has been established and Tom’s work continues with his sons at Mid-Continent. His oldest, Colin, teaches Spanish at a high school in Cedar Rapids and has been deeply involved in the museum for years, currently serving, like his dad, on the board of directors. He’s a regular crewman on trains out of North Freedom. His wife, Molly, is also a museum volunteer.

Tom’s youngest son, Mack, is getting back into the Mid-Continent act, too. After several years of working as a pharmacist in Portland, Ore., he’s now with the Veterans Affairs hospital in Iowa City. Both he and his fiancé, Ellen, work the first-class section of some MCRM trains.

I take a lot of comfort in seeing what’s become of those upstart boys I saw in Sacramento so many years ago. Today, on the job in North Freedom, they don’t look all that much different than their father did in his heyday. Mack celebrates the continuum: “In a way, the museum is full of extended O’Brien family. My personal hope is to ensure Mid-Continent’s longevity by recruiting other folks to join the family!”

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