Milwaukee Road 261

Milwaukee Road 261 is a class "S3" 4-8-4 "Northern" type steam locomotive built by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO), in Schenectady, New York in July 1944, for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, often referred to as the "Milwaukee Road".

Milwaukee Road 261
261 June 22 2006 small.jpg
Milwaukee Road 261 at Milwaukee Intermodal Station in June 2006
Type and origin
Power typeSteam
BuilderAmerican Locomotive Company (ALCO)
Serial number7197e
Build dateJuly 1944
 • Whyte4-8-4
 • UIC2′D2′ h2
Gauge4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Driver dia.74 in (1,880 mm)
Adhesive weight259,300 lb (117,600 kilograms; 117.6 tonnes)
Total weight824,100 lb (373,800 kg)
Fuel typeCoal
Boiler pressure250 lbf/in2 (1.72 MPa)
Cylinder size26 in × 32 in (660 mm × 813 mm)
Performance figures
Maximum speed110 mph (180 km/h)
Power output4,500 hp (3,400 kW)
Tractive effort62,119 lbf (276.32 kN)
Factor of adh.4.17
OperatorsMilwaukee Road
Number in class2nd of 10
  • 261
RetiredAugust 1954 (revenue service)
Current ownerFriends of the 261
DispositionOperational, used primarily in occasional excursion service based in Minneapolis, Minnesota

It was used for heavy mainline freight work until being retired by the railroad in 1954. Instead of being cut up for scrap, 261 was preserved and donated to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1958. Today, the locomotive is owned, operated, and maintained by Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization Friends of the 261, which runs occasional and seasonal excursion trains using the locomotive. The steam engine, restored in 1993,[1] has logged more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km) under its own power since that time.


Revenue service and retirement (1944–1958)Edit

Built by the American Locomotive Company in July 1944, 261 was originally operated by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which was also known as the Milwaukee Road. The locomotive, weighing 460,000 pounds (210,000 kg), is rated at a maximum of 4,500 hp (3,400 kW) and maximum speed of 100 mph (160 km/h), is coal fueled. It operated with the railroad until retiring in 1954, and was eventually donated to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. As the new museum's first acquisition, 261 was moved to the museum site in 1958.

Exterior of the Milwaukee Road 261's cab.

Excursion serviceEdit

In 1991, the newly formed "North Star Rail" selected 261 for restoration for mainline excursions. It was selected for a variety of reasons. The engine was large enough to handle the expected trains at track speed. It featured several modern features for a steam locomotive, including easier to maintain roller bearings. It also already had its asbestos lagging removed, which is very expensive to remove for environmental and safety reasons. Finally, 261's relatively short 10 year service life meant that the engine's boiler is more pristine, meaning it would take less work to rebuild the engine.

Milwaukee Road 261 on display at the National Railroad Museum, Green Bay in August 1970

North Star Rail and the National Railroad Museum came to an agreement in November 1991 for a ten-year lease, which was later renewed ten years later. 261 was moved from Green Bay to Minneapolis to the GE shops at Humboldt Yard in September 1992. There, a full-time staff rebuilt the engine. Work progressed quickly, allowing for a hydrostatic test in June 1993, a test fireup in July, and the eventual restoration completion in September. After passing the FRA inspection on September 14, the engine deadheaded over Wisconsin Central Ltd. in time for its first public excursions on September 18–19, 1993. The engine later returned to its new home at the leased Burlington Northern Minneapolis Junction.

The following year, 261 had an extensive season, including excursions on Wisconsin Central and the Twin Cities and Western Railroad. Notable events included "Chocolate City Days" excursions, campaign trains, a movie shoot painted as "Lackawanna 1661", running over CSX tracks for the famed "New River Train", and a wrap up celebrating the engine's 50th birthday in 1994.

The engine participated in the Steamtown National Historic Site's grand opening in July 1995. Over five days, 261 deadheaded from Minneapolis to Scranton, Pennsylvania. The locomotive stayed in Scranton for the next year pulling numerous excursions, including rare mileage trips, a rare snow plow run, and the engine's first steam doubleheader with Susquehanna 142. A Hancock 3 chime whistle was temporarily added to the locomotive and then replaced with an AT&SF 6 chime whistle, which it remains with today, but still also keeping its original non-Hancock 3 chime whistle and airhorn. 261 returned to the Midwest after almost a year at Steamtown. On its way home, the engine made its first runs over the newly formed BNSF Railway. It pulled a few sets of excursions in 1997 and 1998 over BNSF and TC&W trackage.

The year of 1998 presented 261 on its biggest assignment yet as it was the first steam engine to pull BNSF's Employee Appreciation Special. The engine led a BNSF locomotive and a dozen of BNSF's business fleet around the upper Midwest portion of BNSF's route. This brought the engine back to Chicago before heading north to North Dakota and Montana, then through Minneapolis into Iowa before the EAS concluded at Topeka Railroad Days. 261 ended the 1998 operating season after a few more days on BNSF tracks.

The 1999 season was short with a weekend excursion in May from Minneapolis to Duluth along with runs on the Lake Superior Railroad Museum's tracks, along with another excursion in September. The year 2000 saw 261 leading excursions out of places such as Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City. The engine also led an AAPRCO special on August 29 to Duluth. The engine then led a long circle trip over the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway as well as the North Shore Railroad System before heading back home. The 2001 season had excursions out of Minneapolis and Montevideo over BNSF and TC&W tracks during June and July, in a complete match of Hiawatha passenger cars. The next year, 261 pulled an almost matching consist between Minneapolis and Chicago. At this point, insurance rates were skyrocketing due to outside events as well as new FRA guidelines. The Friends of the 261 had an insurance policy to run through 2002, making these trips among the last time that the group could afford to have 261 run solo.

In the following months, some major changes were made to the Friends of the 261's operations. With insurance being too high to charge reasonable ticket prices, the group decided to team up with Amtrak. Amtrak is self insured, so the added cost of excursion insurance was much less. However, Amtrak requires that all equipment meet Amtrak certification. The engine became the second steam engine to become Amtrak certified, and the Friends of the 261 began to buy or rebuild coaches that would meet Amtrak specifications. The first team up with Amtrak occurred in October 2003 with the engine's return to old Milwaukee Road tracks between Minneapolis to Winona, Minnesota. These trips have been repeated each year until 2011.

261 crossing the Mississippi River at Hastings, Minnesota in October 2007


In June 2004, the engine made its first return visit to Milwaukee since being restored, overnighting on its way to Chicago to participate in the Grand Excursion, an approximate reenactment of the original Grand Excursion of 1854. It departed from Chicago, arriving in Rock Island, Illinois to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first railroad to reach the Mississippi River. During the Grand Excursion, 261 made day trips to Savanna, Illinois over the Iowa, Chicago and Eastern Railroad, and to Bureau Junction, Illinois on the Iowa Interstate Railroad, current owner/operator of the first railroad line to the Mississippi River. The train then traveled north along IC&E rails near the river, making overnight stops at Dubuque, Iowa and La Crosse, Wisconsin. The final leg up to the Twin Cities operated in Wisconsin on BNSF trackage.

261 ran an excursion from Minneapolis to Duluth via BNSF trackage in both 2005 and 2007.

Three June 2006 excursions were launched from Milwaukee: A dinner train in Friday 23 to Sturtevant, Wisconsin, and Saturday and Sunday excursions (24th and 25th) to Wisconsin Dells. For these runs, the train was turned at New Lisbon. These excursions would be repeated in August 2008.

Preparing for an excursion from Minneapolis Junction, September 2008.

In September 2006, 261 and its train visited Rock Island, Illinois as part of RiverWay 2006, a Quad Cities celebration of the 150th anniversary of the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River in 1856. As part of the festivities, 261's train was coupled to a pair of Chinese-built QJ 2-10-2 steam locomotives for a trip to Homestead, Iowa, on September 15, 2006. The next day, 261 was added to run a "triple-header" from Rock Island to Bureau Junction, Illinois; then, on the following day, the QJs pulled the train, without 261, to Muscatine, Iowa, and back. Diesels were not used on any of these excursions.

In September 2007, Canadian Pacific 2816 and 261 reunited for another doubleheader to Winona. No diesels or water cars were used on the trip. The Friends of the 261 had helped the Canadian Pacific Railway plan 2816's return to the United States, as well as providing half of the consist 2816 led.

In May 2008, 261 was featured on a photo charter on the Twin CIties and Western Railroad. Following this, the engine was moved to Chicago for filming in Public Enemies, a movie based on the life of John Dillinger and starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Though 261 was built ten years after Dillinger died, the engine did fit the bill for a steam engine that could be filmed at Chicago Union Station. The engine's final excursion before the required Federal Railway Administration's "15 year inspection" for 261 was a run in September 2008 on Canadian Pacific's ex-Milwaukee Road line from Minneapolis to Winona with a return on BNSF's ex-Burlington Northern line from La Crosse to Minneapolis. Following the engine being pulled from service, The Friends of the 261 quickly began a rebuild to the engine.

Acquisition from the National Railroad MuseumEdit

In 2009, the work on 261 was halted to concentrate efforts on Southern Pacific 4449. The famed "Daylight" was to participate in TrainFestival 2009, and the Friends of the 261 played a major part in the engine being able to participate. The group provided several passenger cars for 4449's excursion from Portland, Oregon, to Owosso, Michigan, that started on July 3, 2009, as well as TrainFestival 2009. After being away for three months, the 4449 arrived in Portland on October 20, 2009.

Milwaukee Road 261 operating an excursion to St. Paul, MN on May 12, 2013.

In November 2009, the Friends of the 261 and the National Railroad Museum had problems with negotiations over lease agreements. The museum was asking too much for the Friends to pay, especially while in the middle of a large overhaul. The Friends of the 261 decided to end the lease with the National Railroad Museum citing the high costs, and began looking for another locomotive to restore.

In mid-January 2010, the engine was found on the website of Sterling Rail, a rail equipment broker, stating that there was a sale pending.[2] The engine was supposedly to be sold to a California-based collector, who would have potentially let the Friends overhaul and operate 261; however, the transaction was never completed. At the time, Steve Sandberg, CEO of the organization, said he was engaged in talks with other organizations about leasing a different engine. In an email dated November 17, 2009, he informed the National Railroad Museum his organization had decided to discontinue operating 261, according to Michael E. Telzrow, executive director of the National Railroad Museum. Per the terms of their agreement, the Friends of the 261 would be responsible for returning the locomotive to the Museum.[3] The Friends of the 261 finally were able to purchase the locomotive in May 2010 for $225,000, keeping it in Minneapolis and returning it to operation upon its rebuild.[4]

2013 and beyondEdit

On September 29, 2012, 261 was test fired and ran under its own power once again.

In April 2013, it successfully operated a test train on the Twin Cities and Western Railroad. It ran normally from Minneapolis, and then operated tender-first back to Minneapolis.

On May 11, 2013 (National Train Day), 261 ran on an excursion north from Minneapolis to Duluth, where it met Soo Line 2719 for the first time. 261 stayed in Duluth overnight and had a photo shoot with 2719. On May 12, 261 returned to Minneapolis. Amtrak P42DC #17 joined 261 for this trip.[5]

On October 12, 2013 261 made a round trip fall color excursion to Willmar, Minnesota. On October 13, 2013, 261 made a second round trip excursion to Boylston, Wisconsin. Amtrak P40DC #824 joined 261 for these trips.[6]

On September 27, 2014, 261 ran on a round trip Fall Colors Excursion to Duluth, returning to Minneapolis on September 28. The excursion traveled on BNSF's Hinckley Subdivision. Amtrak P42DC #174 joined 261 for this trip.[7]

In 2014, it operated the Inaugural "North Pole Express" in St. Paul.

In October 2015, 261 attended the 2015 Railway Interchange Show in Minneapolis on October 4–7. On October 10, 261 pulled a daytime round-trip excursion to Boylston, WI, where it was wyed and returned to Minneapolis. The next day 261 did the same to Willmar, MN on October 11, but used a turntable to face forward for the return to Minneapolis. Amtrak's Phase IV heritage unit #184 joined 261 for both trips.

261 traveled to St. Paul Union Depot under steam to be displayed along other equipment for "Union Depot Train Days", celebrating the 90th anniversary of the building. It was featured in a night photo shoot with Soo Line 2500, an EMD FP7.

On June 4, 2016, 261 ran a round trip to Duluth, Minnesota, returning to Minneapolis on June 5. Amtrak has been power short as of recent, so 261 performed this trip on its own. In September 2016, 261 operated on Twin Cities and Western Railroad and Minnesota Prairie Line trackage. The Minnesota Prairie Line is former Chicago and North Western Railway trackage that originally belonged to the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway. 261 operated as far west as Winthrop, Minnesota. It was the first time in 60 years that a steam engine operated on the Minnesota Prairie Line. The same route was operated in the fall of 2017.

In October 2016, 261 operated three round trips from Minneapolis on the Twin Cities and Western Railroad, running on former Milwaukee Road tracks. 261 operated without a diesel helper except to be pulled back to Minneapolis as there were no places to turn the train around.

In June 2017, 261 operated on the Red River Valley and Western Railroad in North Dakota.

Due to changes made to Amtrak's policy for charter trains in 2018, 261 was unable to perform a majority of excursions, including an excursion to Duluth that was supposed to take place in June of that year.[8]

On September 8 and 9, 2018, Friends of the 261 operated two excursions for Fall Color and Gourmet Express where they operates west from Minneapolis to Glencoe, Minnesota on Twin Cities and Western trackage with a stop near Norwood Young America, Minnesota for the gourmet food and wine and a photo runby.[9]

On September 22, 2019, for the 25th anniversary of the first excursion in 1993, 261 pulled a special train for the annual convention of the American Association of Railroad Private Car Owners or AAPRCO.

In May 2019, after an agreement settled in January, Friends of the 261 acquired former Milwaukee Road EMD E9 #32A from the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad, which is owned by Watco Companies. First showcased at Union Depot Day from May 31 to June 2, it pulled its first excursion on June 22, still painted in Wisconsin and Southern colors minus the former lettering.[10][11][12]

In June 2019, 261 pulled two excursions for the Milwaukee Road Historical Association convention being held in Minneapolis called 261 Hiawatha. On June 22, 2019, the train operated from Minneapolis to Brownton, Minnesota on the Twin Cities and Western. On June 23, 2019, the train traveled between Minneapolis and Norwood Young America on TC&W, then from Norwood to Winthrop on TC&W subsidiary Minnesota Prairie Line, a rare mileage trip for 261.[12]

On September 21 and 22, 2019, there were two excursions for the Gourmet Express.[13]

North Pole ExpressEdit

Milwaukee Road 261 decorated as the North Pole Express in 2014 at St. Paul Union Depot

In December 2014, for two weekends, 261 operated out of St. Paul Union Depot pulling short trips decorated as the "North Pole Express". The train consisted of 4 coach class cars, and operated on a one mile (1.6 km) long track on the Depot grounds. 261 even posed next to Canadian Pacific's Holiday Train when it also visited the depot.

It reprised its role as the locomotive for the "North Pole Express at St. Paul Union Depot" in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, operating two weekends in December.

Mars lightEdit

The Milwaukee Road's 4-8-4's were known for their distinctive Mars Light above the headlight, and 261 was no exception. When its second restoration was completed in 2013, it was put in its "as delivered" appearance, meaning that the Mars light was not included on 261. In 2016, the light was reinstalled.

Excursion fleet and support equipmentEdit


Most 261 excursions are assisted by modern diesel-electric locomotives, required by Amtrak. These engines can help pull longer trains or provide motive power if 261 were to break down en route. The diesel also provides head end power for the passenger cars. In recent years, these have usually been GE P42DC locomotives. Sometimes, Amtrak heritage locomotives are requested, though such locomotives are not always available.

Railroad Number Power type Class/Model Built Retired Purchased Operational
Milwaukee Road 261 Steam Class S-3, 4-8-4 "Northern" 1944 1954 2010 Yes
Milwaukee Road 32A Diesel EMD E9A 1956 2019 Yes

Passenger carsEdit

Part of the success of the Friends of the 261 has been the purchase of numerous passenger cars for use on excursions. One that fans might recognize is the first tool car, the "Earling". The car was built by the Milwaukee Road as a "Beaver-tail" observation car in 1939, but was rebuilt into a tool car in 1959. The car was donated in 1992, and was the main tool car until 2003. The car's age made it expensive to upgrade to Amtrak specifications, so a new tool car, "Grand Canyon", was bought and repainted.

Another notable passenger car is the "Silver Palace" Dome coach. It was formerly owned by Western Pacific for use on the California Zephyr. All of the Western Pacific dome coaches were sold to the original Auto-Train where the car worked, until service was discontinued in April 1981. "Silver Palace" passed through several owners, including the late country and western star Merle Haggard, and along the way was reconfigured into a lounge/private car. Wisconsin Central Ltd. acquired the car for its former Algoma Central passenger service, and was conveyed to Canadian National Railway when they absorbed WC.

The "Fox River Valley" was built in 1952 for the Pennsylvania Railroad's Congressional between New York and Washington as the parlor car "Henry Hudson". It was acquired by Amtrak in 1971, and converted to a buffet/table car in 1986. After being sold by Amtrak, the car ran in charter service through Mid-America Railcar, wearing the names Henry Hudson and "Keystone Grill". Paxrail acquired the car in October 2013, and renamed it "Warriors Rest". Purchased in 2017 by Friends of the 261, the Warriors Rest was extensively refurbished into a luxury lounge car and renamed the "Fox River Valley".

The "Golden Valley" was built by Pullman-Standard in 1958 as a 73 foot baggage express car for Northern Pacific as #220. It ran on the North Coast Limited and Mainstreeter along with other Northern Pacific passenger trains. After it was retired, it was obtained by the St. Louis Steam Train Association, operator of Frisco 1522. It was repainted in the Frisco Meteor passenger train paint scheme and named "Black Gold". It operated with SL-SF until that locomotive was re-retired and the car was subsequently purchased by Friends of the 261.

Non-Amtrak certified coaches include the "Earling" (1938), and the "Milwaukee" business car. Though the cars are not Amtrak certified, they are used for added capacity for non-Amtrak insured excursions. In addition, the Friends of the 261 owns a water car, #250002. The water car was once a tender used behind a Louisville and Nashville "Big Emma" 2-8-4, and later became a water car for the Southern and Norfolk Southern steam program. The water car was bought at an auction in 1995 when NS ended its steam program.

Trains pulled by 261 usually feature the distinctive Skytop Lounge Cedar Rapids, created by the noted industrial designer Brooks Stevens, and built by the Milwaukee Road shops for Hiawatha service in 1948. This car, completely upgraded in 2004, and an interior restoration in 2014, is equipped with 24 Rota-Cline seats, 12 seats in the Solarium, and one drawing room/kitchenette. It is commonly paired with a 54-seat full length dome, Super Dome #53, built by Pullman-Standard for Milwaukee Road in 1952.

Here is a list of the cars now owned by Friends of the 261. All are painted in the Milwaukee Road's famed "Hiawatha" orange and maroon unless otherwise noted.

Railroad Number Name Type Notes
Central of Georgia NSR 202 Wenonah Coach
Central of Georgia NSR 203 Nokomis Coach
Milwaukee Road 186 Ceder Rapids Observation
Milwaukee Road NSR 1938 Earling Baggage Ex Beaver Tail Observation
Milwaukee Road Milwaukee Business
Milwaukee Road Minnesota River Sleeper
Milwaukee Road Montana Business
Milwaukee Road 53 Super Dome
Northern Pacific 220 Golden Valley Baggage
Pennsylvania Fox River Valley Parlor
Pennsylvania 7616 Lake Pepin Coach
Union Pacific 2450 Baggage
United States Army/Amtrak NSR 1615 Grand Canyon Baggage/Dormitory
United States Army/Amtrak Wisconsin Valley Lounge
Western Pacific Silver Palace Dome


  1. ^ a b Passenger Train Journal, November 1993, p. 20. Interurban Press/Pentrex.
  2. ^ "Milwaukee Road 261 sale pending". Archived from the original on April 26, 2010.
  3. ^ "Milwaukee Road 261 has new Owner". Archived from the original on February 20, 2010.
  4. ^ "Milwaukee 261 sold, will continue operating". Trains. May 8, 2010. Retrieved June 25, 2011.
  5. ^ Kuchera, Steve (May 7, 2013). "Refurbished Milwaukee Road locomotive to steam from Twin Cities to Duluth". Retrieved December 28, 2014.
  6. ^ "Milwaukee Road No. 261 to pull autumn excursions". Trains Magazine. August 21, 2013. Retrieved December 28, 2014.
  7. ^ Glischinski, Steve (May 30, 2014). "Milwaukee Road 261 to pull steam excursion to Duluth". Trains Magazine. Retrieved December 28, 2014.
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^

Further readingEdit

  • Glischinski, Steve (2004). Milwaukee Road 261: A Steam Locomotive for the 21st Century (1st ed.). South Platte Press. ISBN 978-0942035667.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

External linksEdit