For PM 1225, the right man at the right time

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Pere Marquette 1225 performs with a photo freight on Michigan short line Great Lakes Central in 2014. Michigan State University students, mentored by MSU employee Don Childs, launched the effort to restore the 2-8-4 in 1969. Jeff Mast
Every time you see a steam locomotive operate in 2018, you can be sure there are legions of dedicated volunteers who made it happen. There’s no way an engine runs without a core group of people who are knowledgeable, organized, and dedicated (some would say crazy) enough to make it happen.

Within that group, there are always a handful you could call indispensable — people who went the proverbial extra mile, people who stuck their necks out, people without whom the engine would never have turned a wheel. You might call them angels. 

I know about some of those people, thanks to my association decades ago with Project 1225, the effort to restore Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225 on the campus of Michigan State University. For my entire time at MSU, I was actively involved as a member of the MSU Railroad Club. 

The 1225 eventually came back in steam, beginning in 1986, and today runs fairly frequently on Great Lakes Central out of Owosso, Mich., where it is the star of the Steam Railroading Institute. The tale of the 1225 is one of decades of hard work, twists and turns, and unshaken belief. I even wrote a book about it called Twelve Twenty Five: The Life and Times of a Steam Locomotive.

I bring this up this because last week a few of us old MSU guys were reunited with one of those angels, Don Childs, who played a critical role in the early days of Project 1225. For our big Berkshire, he was the right man at the right time. Don is 97 now, an amazing milepost to reach, and living in a comfortable seniors facility in Holland, Mich. Seeing how sharp and witty he remains was a revelation. 

Don Childs (center), Pete Camps (left), and an unidentified 1225 crew member work on fastening the 2-8-4's whistle to the steam dome in 1975. John B. Corns
Joining me in our little reunion were three compatriots from those MSU days. First and perhaps foremost was Randy Paquette, the guy I credit with getting Project 1225 up and running in the first place. Randy retired recently after a long, successful career in large-scale facilities management.

Back in September 1969, the MSU Railroad Club had begun getting together with the purpose of being a conventional railfan organization, with slide shows, fan trips, and perhaps a bit of modeling on the side. Then one Tuesday night all those plans were set aside when Randy attended a meeting to present an audacious, even far-fetched idea: “Let’s restore the 1225 to operating condition!” Needless to say, the club took the idea and ran with it.

Also along last week were Chuck Julian and Roger Scovill. Chuck was a longtime member and former president of the club. He has a strong aptitude for all things mechanical, reflected in his subsequent career running his family’s foundry based in Pontiac. Roger was another key part of the mechanical crew who went on to a career in accounting and financial management.

There was a lot of other talent in the club, but none of us would have been able to accomplish a darned thing without Don Childs. Don had the title of supervisor of engineering research at MSU. What that really meant was that he ran the Engineering Department’s top-notch machine shop, located in the basement of the Engineering Building not far from the 1225 display site.

It was Don who took us under his wing, giving us training and advice, allowing us to have free use of all the equipment in the shop, and often getting his own hands dirty on the 1225. As I wrote in my book, “Childs wasn’t a member of the MSU faculty, but he should have been. He knew instinctively how to teach, and he did it with encouragement and patience. Club members came to see him as a mentor, and Childs treated his apprentices like star students.” 

Members of the MSU 1225 crew reunited at Holland, Mich., in October 2018. From left: Randy Paquette, Roger Scovill, Don Childs, Chuck Julian, and Kevin Keefe. Tim Childs
A lot of work got accomplished in that shop during those early years. The facility made possible a thorough restoration of just about every appurtenance on the 1225, from the dynamo to the engine’s two cross-compound air compressors to the stoker control assembly. Even before the boiler was finished, the engine had a set of like-new appliances. It was the kick-start we needed.

Don denied this when we got together last week, but I always felt that he took some risk in giving us basically free rein in the machine shop. Over time, Project 1225 became rather unpopular in some quarters of the university’s administration — for some reason they didn’t like seeing a locomotive in pieces in the middle of the campus — but Don always stuck by us.

Until last week, the last time I saw Don was on a sunny Sunday in October 1975, the day the club performed its first stationary fire-up of the boiler, culminating two years of work on the flues and other components. One of my favorite photos from the day shows Don supervising the installation of 1225’s whistle back on the steam dome. 

Don takes a lot of satisfaction in what’s happened to 1225 since those MSU days, and he’s a supporter of the Steam Railroading Institute and its continued stewardship of 1225 over in Owosso. He’s had a chance to ride behind the engine, a thrill he probably thought unlikely back in those early days. I hope he realizes how much of that success can be traced back to him.

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