Time Machine: The old steam locomotive saved by a man from Cedar Rapids

Lou Keller and Merle Anderson, 9, both of Cedar Rapids, officiate as Keller’s Old 790 steam locomotive prepares for an April 1965 trip to Clinton. Keller purchased the steam engine, built in 1903, from the Illinois Central Railroad in 1959. It is now at the Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania (Gazette archive)

Illinois Central steam locomotive No. 790 had spent 55 years in freight service and was heading for the scrap yard in 1959 when “railfan” Lou Keller bought it and brought it to Cedar Rapids from Memphis, Tenn.

Keller, owner of Keller’s Office Supply at Second Avenue and Fifth Street SE, placed the locomotive on a siding near Oakland Road NE, where people came to inspect the engine under the direction of four boys Keller hired as guides.

They conducted tours around the 61-foot-long locomotive, explaining how the 2-8-0 consolidation-type engine works. The engine was built in November 1903 by the American Locomotive Co. for the Chicago Union Transfer Railway Co.

Locomotive 790 operated at 195 pounds of pressure and carried 8 tons of coal and 7,000 gallons of water. Empty, it weighed 110 tons.

The locomotive was sold to the Illinois Central Railroad in 1904 and renumbered No. 641. In 1918 it was rebuilt as an “overheated heavy freight locomotive”. It was renumbered again in 1943, becoming IC 790.


Diesel engines came into widespread use in the 1950s, replacing steam locomotives.

After Keller purchased the steam locomotive, he moved it and his caboose to the Darling Co. Yard, formerly the Rock Island Railroad Roundhouse, not far from the west shore of Cedar Lake, where it was dismantled and overhauled.

The work was done in July 1960, and Keller added cars so he could run trips between Cedar Rapids and Ottumwa in September, with Milwaukee Railroad employees at the controls, navigating along Milwaukee Railroad tracks.

On September 17, the steam locomotive pulled out of Cedar Rapids onto the track beside the First Avenue municipal parking lot, the first to do so in 15 years. It towed four air-conditioned Milwaukee-Hiawatha cars, a baggage refresher car, and an old-fashioned combine car, which carried both passengers and cargo.

Charles Jones Sr., the son of famed railroad engineer Casey Jones, participated in the September 17 and 18 excursions. Charles was 12 when his father died in the wreck of the ‘Cannonball’ locomotive in 1900. ‘The Ballad of Casey Jones’ immortalized the wreckage and Jones’ life-saving actions.

The trips

The two locomotive excursions attracted 622 passengers – 282 on Saturday and 340 on Sunday. Sunday’s race featured a train robbery near Fairfax staged by about 15 “armored” riders from the West Side Saddle Club.

Williamsburg and Sigourney firefighters used hoses to replenish the engine’s water supply since the old water tanks that once supplied the steam engines no longer existed.

CD Fullerton of Cedar Rapids, a retired engineer from Rock Island who helped overhaul the locomotive, got off the train on its first water stop in Williamsburg. He was left behind.

“In 50 years of the railroad, this was the first time a train had been missed,” reported The Gazette. “He tried unsuccessfully to hire a taxi to take him to the line to catch his train.

“To the rescue came George Schindler, steward of the Iowa County home, who took Mr. Fullerton to Parnell, passing the train on the way. There remained the problem of stopping the train. Mr. Fullerton solved the problem by borrowing Mr. Schindler’s shirt to signal the 790.”

A rarity

While the 790 was rare, it was not the only steam locomotive in service in the country.

But it’s the only one that “was rebuilt in working order by a handful of Cedar Rapids men who, though they had various types of jobs, shared a common love: the steam railroad. The results of this dedicated labor were demonstrated quite dramatically when the 790 took Rutledge Hill in Ottumwa “without service,” reported V. Allan Vaughn, president of the Iowa Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. in Oelwein.

The Old 790 continued to run on short rails at Hawkeye Downs after 1960, and it remained on display there until 1965, running along a 490-foot track during the All-Iowa Fair and other exhibits.

To the rescue

The engine was returned to service in April 1965 when floodwaters covered the Clinton railroad tracks.

Vast stores of corn were under threat at the Clinton Corn Processing Co. plant. Diesel locomotives could not cross water deeper than a few inches. The old 790 could walk through water to its combustion chamber – about 5 feet.

A diesel engine towed the Old 790 to Clinton, where it hauled 50 carloads of corn a day through floodwaters.


News reports of the engine rescue mission appeared in New York, where the New York Central Railroad was looking for a steam engine to pull tour and ski trains through the Adirondack Mountains.

Keller, claiming the 790 was “too much power” to rust on a siding, sold the locomotive. It was delivered to Chicago, where New York Central transported it to Lake Placid, NY

In 1966, Old 790 was sent to Steamtown USA, New Hampshire. In 1984 it went to Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where it remains today.

Keller, the man who saved Old 790, left the office supply business and drove for CRST and then Westside Transport. He remained a member of the Iowa Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society until his death in 1985.

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The Old 790 steam engine leaves for a trip to Clinton in April 1965 to haul loads of corn through floodwaters at the Clinton Corn Processing Co. (Gazette archive)

Jose P. Rogers