The great (and expensive) period of steam locomotives begins | Local News

CITY OF SPRINGFIELD — When Steve Roudebush and Bruce Grill agreed to help restore a 1907 steam locomotive, they estimated their part of the project would take about 14 months.

The original plan was to fix the frame and undercarriage in their machine shop and ship the project somewhere else to get the boiler, cab and combustor. Once assembled, it would return to the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom to serve as a major attraction for tourist attraction.

That was nearly four years ago.

Steve Roudebush, owner of SPEC Machine, pauses on the original sand dome of steam locomotive No. 1385. The dome contains sand that can be spread on train tracks with an internal auger to improve traction.


Most of the work has remained in the SPEC Machine shop north of Middleton on Riles Road, Grill has retired, but the end of the $2 million project may finally be in sight.

And if the timetable holds true, the locomotive, which years ago pulled the Great Circus Train, could belch steam and haul passenger cars by next summer through the wooded, hilly terrain of the Sauk county.

“We have a lot to do but little time to do it,” Roudebush, 53, said last week. “I don’t even want to know how many hours I put in. My bills don’t reflect half of that, but it’s a passion.

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Mid-Continent Railway Museum Steam Engine 1385

Steam and smoke billow over the gray snow-covered landscape of Sauk County in North Freedom during an annual snow run at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in 1986. The cold, damp air did not prevented people from viewing, photographing and riding the No 1385 Steam Train which in 1984 was used to film footage for a Mel Gibson film.


And one of the largest and most expensive projects for the locomotive is about to begin.

The steel will be cut starting this week at Continental Fabrication in St. Louis, where the 30-foot-long, 68-inch-diameter boiler will be built. Other company steels will be cut and shipped to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

This is where Gary Bensman, who founded Diversified Rail Services in 1979, will use a 1920s fabrication machine to bend steel up to three-quarters of an inch thick to create the 30,000-pound firebox which measures 9 feet long, 6 feet wide and 7 feet high.

Mid-Continent Railway Museum Steam Engine 1385

This photo, from 1990, shows Paul Swanson fueling the combustion chamber of steam engine No. 1385 at the Mid-Continent Railway in North Freedom. A new 30,000 pound combustor is being built as part of the locomotive’s restoration.


When the combustion chamber, used to heat water for the 10,000-pound boiler, is complete, it will be shipped to St. Louis, attached to the boiler and all the work, valued at $700,000 , trucked to SPEC Machine to be placed on the locomotive. frame.

“It’s a messy process with a lot of parts,” said Bensman, whose company specializes in rebuilding locomotives. “The fit of this to the hearth on the frame, the basic shape of the hearth, its size, the fit of the cabin to the boiler, the fit of the boiler to the front of the cylinders are all the same (like the original), it’s only small details that are different.

Steam Locomotive No. 1385

Steve Roudebush, owner of SPEC Machine near Middleton, walks past steam locomotive No. 1385 being restored in his workshop. By this summer, the boiler and hearth will be added in hopes of having them working again at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom. When complete, the locomotive will weigh approximately 180,000 pounds.


But the work is not limited to the locomotive. Roudebush is spending $80,000 of his own money on a 1,500 square foot addition to his machine shop which will also include an 18 foot high overhead door. When complete, 50ft of track will be constructed to bring the chassis out of the existing workshop where this summer a crane will lift the chassis and drive system onto a different set of tracks leading to the new addition.

The expansion will provide ample space for No. 1385 and more working space for future steam engine and locomotive projects planned by Roudebush, who is still doing other work for his company.

Steam Locomotive No. 1385

Steve Roudebush, left, holds plans for the firebox for steam locomotive No. 1385. The firebox is being built at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee, starting this week. Once completed, the fireplace will be shipped to St. Louis and attached to the boiler. The $700,000 boiler and combustor will then be shipped to the Roudebush shop where they will be installed on the original locomotive frame. At right is Brett Morley of Performance Engineering in Waunakee, who was instrumental in the design of the boiler. Tyler Roudebush, Steve’s son, who now works in the shop is seen in the background.


“It’s something not many people can say they’ve done,” Rodebush said of the locomotive project. “My day starts at 4:30 a.m. and usually ends around 6:30, 7 p.m..”

The locomotive, built in 1907 by the American Locomotive Co.’s Schenectady Works in New York, was a workhorse for the Chicago & North Western Railroad from 1907 to 1956. When it was retired, members of the Mid- Continent in 1961 raised $2,600 to purchase the juggernaut.

Beginning in 1963, the locomotive pulled wagons over the museum’s 3.5 miles of track, and in the mid-1980s pulled the Circus World Museum’s Circus Train for three consecutive summers from Baraboo to Milwaukee and back.

In the 1990s the locomotive made mainline runs to Brodhead, Mazomania and Wausau.

It was taken out of service in 1998 for what museum officials believed was $125,000 in boiler repairs. Further inspection revealed that the engine needed a full restoration which is now being paid for by donations and grants. The locomotive is seen as vital to the future of the Mid-Continent Museum, located west of Baraboo, which focuses on railway equipment between 1885 and 1915, when steam locomotives carried 90% of passengers and freight from the country.

When completed, 1385 will become the only C&NW steam locomotive in service in the country and one of only eight to have been preserved.

SPEC has held open houses each of the past three years on the same weekends as the Mad City Model Railroad Show & Sale, but this year is skipping an open house to focus on completing the project. Plus, to the casual observer, the 40-foot-long chassis, with its three sets of 63-inch-diameter drive wheels, one set of which weighs 15,000 pounds, looks much the same as it did last year. at that time.

Mid-Continent Railway Museum Steam Engine 1385

Shrouded in escaping steam, a passenger train from the Mid-Continent Railway Museum’s Historical Collection crosses the ice-covered Baraboo River near North Freedom, WI. This 75-year-old steam engine will pull excursion trains for visitors to the museum’s annual 1982 snow train.

Mid-Continent Railway Museum

Over the past year, the 10,000 pound front wheel trucks have been installed, and the eccentric blades and straps used to drive the pistons and the cross head sliders used to guide the pistons have all been refurbished. The bearings have been installed, the cabin delivered, and recently 125 members of the State Steam Engine Historical Association visited.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s finished and back on the engine,” said Peter Deets, a museum volunteer and the last person to turn on the locomotive’s engine before it was taken out of service in 1998. “It’s a crying distance from where we were two years ago.

Steam Locomotive No. 1385

Steve Roudebush stands by the driving wheels of locomotive #1385.


Projects to be undertaken next year include the refurbishment of brakes, the installation of pistons, the refurbishment of the 3,000 pound superheater manifold used to collect and transfer steam and the refurbishment of the dome which contains the sand used to improve traction. Roudebush expects the combustor and boiler to be delivered by June, meaning he could test the locomotive in his workshop this summer.

Steam Locomotive No. 1385

Components of steam locomotive No. 1385 await restoration at the SPEC Machine shop in the town of Springfield.


“We’re going to bring it up here,” Roudebush said. “There were a lot of parts and parts.”

Brett Morley, who came to the United States from Australia 17 years ago for a job with Uniek in Waunakee, is now President of Performance Engineering in Waunakee. He was involved in the design of the boiler and worked with Roudebush on other projects, including fixing the bell brackets in the three-bell tower of St Peter’s Catholic Church in nearby Ashton.

The locomotive project provides a unique opportunity for Morley, even though he works at a company where different projects come to his doorstep on a daily basis.

“We want this boiler to look as much like the old boiler as possible,” Morley said. “There is this old world technology, but also the application of a lot of new world technology in the fact that there are a lot of computerized entrances. But when it comes to the practical details, it comes down to doing things the way they did 100 years ago using the same equipment and technology.

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send her ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or email her at

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Jose P. Rogers