On the drive down Riles Road in the Town of Springfield past barns and snow covered fields, who would guess one of the farm buildings holds the wheels and chassis of a 1907 steam locomotive?
Waunakee native Steve Roudebush rearranged his shop at SPEC Machine to fit the locomotive parts as part of massive restoration of the Chicago & North Western No. 1385. The chassis sits on a track assembly Roudebush installed for the project. The imposing chassis also required him and partner Bruce Grill to install a new door to the shop.
Roudebush is part of a large team restoring the 107-year-old steam locomotive. The $2 million undertaking is expected to take between a year and a half to two years, say Don Meyer and Pete Deets, both of whom are involved with the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom.
Deets is a task force member from the museum, and the two are project team leaders.
Initially, the restoration was planned in the 1990s to be on a much a smaller scale, they said. When it was discovered the firebox and other parts needed repairs, the project got larger.
“Once you start taking things apart, you see the damage,” Meyer said.
The locomotive was retired in 1956, but was used as a passenger train and for special projects until 1998 when boiler repairs were needed.
Roudebush and other longtime Waunakee residents remember it well.
“I remember this as a little kid in Waunakee, the 1385 with the Circus Train behind it stopping for a day,” Roudebush said.
The iconic locomotive is also pictured with the Circus Train in front of the Waunakee depot in local artist Gladys Grieger’s “Tracks of Time” painting. Prints of that sold as a fundraiser to refurbish the depot in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Roudebush said the restortion will be long and expensive, and a personal challenge.
“Part of the reason I wanted the job was learning about how it was done in the past,” Roudebush said.
The restorative work is extremely specialized, with only a few machines left capable of the job.
Asked why the museum would undertake such an expensive project, Meyer replied, “We’re crazy.”
On a more serious note, Deets explained the cultural and historic importance. The locomotive is only one of eight built for the C&NW to survive, Deets said. Once refurbished, it will be the only one still in operation. Afterwards, it’s expected to continue running for another 100 years.
The mission statement of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum, a 501(c) 3, includes education, and the steam locomotive is among the most famous nationwide, Deets said.
The museum’s website notes that between 1901 and 1908, “325 of the 82-ton class R-1's were built for the C&NW, making them the largest single class of locomotives that railroad ever owned. Designed for fast freight service, they also were used for secondary passenger trains and local switching from Upper Michigan to the Dakotas to suburban Chicago.”
Meyer said the locomotive is on the Wisconsin and National lists of Historic Places.
“It’s been one of the easiest projects to raise money for,” Deets said.
Once restored and operating, the locomotive will boost tourism at the museum and the region’s economy, Deets and Meyer say.
“When the steam locomotive was running, attendance used to be 50,000 per year,” Meyer said about the museum. The previous general manager for the museum, he added that today about half that many stop in each year.
“Once it’s back in operation, it will have an impact on revenue,” Meyer said, noting that the additional dollars could go toward other restoration projects.
“It will have financial benefits in many other ways over a long period of time,” Meyer added.
Deets said the project will be an added tourism attraction with visitors coming to Baraboo for the Circus World Museum and the International Crane Foundation and then to North Freedom’s Mid-Continent Railway Museum.
“It’s adding value to the cultural attractions,” Deets said.
Roudebush will open his shop for visitors to get the rare opportunity to see the train. The 1385 Restoration Open House is part of a train trifecta weekend, with the Model Railroad Show at the Alliant Energy Center and the Snow Train weekend at the Mid-Continent Museum. Visitors to the museum can take a 7-mile, 55-minute round-trip ride on a former branch line of the Chicago & North Western Railroad, at the foot of the Baraboo Hills.
SPEC Machine Shop is located at 7175 Riles Road, off of Hwy. 12 between Hwys. K and 19.