• My 261 Steam Minneapolis-Duluth Round Trip

  • Tell us where you were and what you saw!
Tell us where you were and what you saw!

Moderator: David Benton

  by Scoring Guy
One of the more popular, and almost annual trips the Friends of 261 steam excursion train is the Minneapolis to Duluth and return (which in ‘07 occurred on the weekend of June 2 & 3). An announced passenger load of about 600 rode in three classes, “Coach” , which has typical 2 by 2 coach seating, “First Class”, various flat top cars utilizing a dukes mixture of household furnishings (tables and chair, easy chairs, etc), and “Premium”, which includes specialty cars, including the # 53 Superdome, the “Cedar Rapids” Skytop lounge, and often other private cars that sign on for the trip. The Superdome retains the same interior configuration as it had in Amtrak use in the Carolina’s. There’s a snack car as well. The pricing for these cars, is usually about double the Coach price for First Class and triple for Premium. I, being on the 261 mailing list, was fortunate to have a seat in the Superdome, although I spent the majority of the northbound trip seated on a bar stool (because it offers a more elevated view than from the seats -a traditional complaint of the PS built full domes was to lowness of the seats with respect to the wrap around windows).

The 261 is a ex-Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 Northern steamer with two tenders, one for coal, and one for water. The trips usually operate as an Amtrak special, and thus an Amtrak “Genesis” locomotive was part of the consist, for security (in case of a break down of the 261), while supplying electrical power to the all Amtrak certified cars. The 261 operates out of the ex-Great Northern shops area at North Minneapolis junction; those shops were also used by Amtrak in its early years. The Friends of 216 own about a dozen cars, painted in pre-UP Milwaukee colors, but also use several stainless coach cars for their trips.
Passengers arrive, and park, at the 261 shops, and board the train; it departed about two minutes late, at 9:02 AM. The route followed is the Great Northern route, the only one of the several routes of old, that survives in top form today, and the route used by Amtrak, back in the day, traveling through Coon Creek, Cambridge, Hinckley (there‘s still a junction with ex-NP track in Hickley), Sandstone, etc, before crossing into Wisconsin near Holyoke. The train was in no big hurry, running slow, and yielding to freights. Upon arrival to the Superior yard, the train did a sharp 90 degree turn to the west, to prepare for the crossing of the St. Louis River. The long, low level river crossing, includes a swing bridge, near the midpoint, which is somewhat overshadowed by the high concrete Highway 2 road bridge (with photogs). Another sharp 90 degree turn to the North, brought the train into the Duluth yard, where the steam locomotive was detached. Under Amtrak diesel power, the train drove east into the yard, and then did a 90 degree backup, to the North, into the Duluth depot, arriving at 4:30 PM. Today the Duluth depot holds a City art and history center, and a very good railroad museum in the preserved train shed.

The passengers exited and walked only two or three blocks to spend the night in hotels. The train was then reconfigured (minus the coaches) , with a business car added, in order to do a dinner train run north to Palmers and back, under Amtrak power (I didn’t participate in the dinner train). The nightlife in downtown Duluth is confined to the “Riverfront” area, in the low, flat area between the downtown and the city’s famous lift bridge. In case of inclement weather, many of the downtown buildings and the Riverfront are connected with indoor second story walkways , and needed to cross Highway 61.
The Sunday morning boarding of the train for the return trip, was hampered slightly by a rain shower, but the train departed on time at 11:00 AM. I stayed away from the bar stool on the return trip, and relaxed in my seat, talking train stuff with like minded souls. After a slow, but uneventful trip, we arrived back at North Minneapolis at 6:00 PM.

Fortunately, I live in Onalaska, WI (near La Crosse) which is only a 2 and a half hour drive to the 261, a small price to pay for this great train trip. One could also travel to the Twin Cities, by taking Amtrak to the Midway Station, and take a cab or the 24 hours City bus to/from the 261 shops. A (“Midway”) Days Inn, is a short walk from the Amtrak station, and on the same corner as a bus stop. On could also fly to Minneapolis, (stay in a motel with an airport shuttle) and take the Hiawatha light rail from the airport (or the Mall of America) to the downtown Nicolette station, and transfer to a City bus there. Two interesting downtown Minneapolis sights are the Milwaukee Road station and train shed, which is now the Marriott Hotel, and the near by Stone Arch Bridge, which is now a bike trail. Check 261.com for train info. On Labor Day weekend, the 261 (under CP 2816 power) will operate excursions out of Lincoln Park (Chicago) (with Minneapolis to Milwaukee/Chicago and return trips on either side of that weekend. There’s also a Calgary to Minneapolis trip in August, and a Minneapolis to Calgary trip in September. In October there will be two Minneapolis-Winona round trips.