By Adelle Whitefoot
The Soo Line locomotive 2719 has been in Duluth for more than a decade, making weekend treks up to Two Harbors and back on the North Shore Scenic Railroad from 2006 to 2013.
But, before it was in Duluth, the steam engine was owned by the city of Eau Claire, Wis., which now wants it back.
The engine was built in 1923 and ran for the Soo Line Railroad. After retiring from service in 1960, it was donated to Eau Claire and put on display in the city park. It sat there untouched until for the most part until 1996, when the Locomotive and Tower Preservation Fund was formed and took possession of the engine. The group restored it and started running it again in 1997.
“It ran for a couple of years, but the railroad industry changed, through no fault of anybody’s, the railroads weren’t welcoming steam-powered excursions anymore,” said Lake Superior Railroad Museum executive director Ken Buehler. “So, the engine set in a roundhouse in Altoona, Wis., until the Union Pacific tore down the roundhouse. Then it sat outside.”
Buehler said that’s when the locomotive came to the attention of the museum.
“That would have been a good time for the city of Eau Claire to step in and rescue the engine, but they didn’t,” he said. “So, we reached a deal to lease the engine from this nonprofit group and then we moved it to Duluth.”
With considerable effort and by working with Union Pacific and Canadian National, the engine was successfully moved to Duluth in 2006.
It ran between Duluth and Two Harbors until it’s boiler license expired. According to Buehler, a boiler license lasts for 15 years. At the end of the 15 years, the Federal Railroad Administration requires the boiler to be rebuilt to continue to run again. Buehler said it takes five years and about $250,000 to rebuild the boiler. The railroad eventually replaced Engine 2719 with Steam Locomotive 28 once it was restored last year.
When the boiler license for Engine 2719 expired, the museum became aware the nonprofit they leased the engine from no longer existed.
“So, we went back to the city of Eau Claire three years ago and said that there was a contract clause with the nonprofit that the city could buy it back from them for $1,” Buehler said. “We told them that this engine deserves to be in a museum. We’ll take care of it, we’ll eventually restore it and we’ll run it again, but we need to own it to do that.”
The city of Eau Claire agreed to sell the engine to the museum for $2 but with a stipulation: Eau Claire had three years to buy it back from the museum for $4. Shortly before the clause expired Aug. 2, Eau Claire notified the museum of its intentions to buy back the engine.
At its June 26 meeting, the Eau Claire City Council approved a resolution to ask the museum for an extension on the purchase agreement to Feb. 1 with no new conditions and if the extension was granted the city would exercise its right to purchase the engine back.
Buehler said the museum did offer to approve the extension but only if the city was willing to reopen the contract and agree to the conditions that the train be store inside, have protection such as alarms, locked doors, fences and gate, have interpretation signage and a plan for its future.
Eau Claire city manager Dale Peters said because the council’s resolution specified no new conditions, the city rejected the offer and decided to buy it.
“We are actively working on plans to bring the train back to the city of Eau Claire,” he said. “There are varying estimates on the cost to move it back. The method, means and final cost to move it back is undetermined at this time.”
Councilor David Strobel was the one who brought the expiring contract to the council’s attention.
“I knew we had a deadline, and I didn’t want to do it at the last second it’s just that the city has been very busy with developments and other things, but I just wanted a chance to talk to the entire council prior to losing that opportunity,” he said.
Strobel said he believes the museum has done a good job of taking care of the engine, but it was never supposed to leave the city of Eau Claire in the first place.
“It belongs to the city and it deserves to see it come back. There are a lot of people here that have a big connection to that train,” he said. “I think the council felt that the citizens of Eau Claire weren’t really going to see and enjoy the train up in Duluth. It was a tough decision.”
If plans did fall through to move the engine back, Buehler said they museum would take it back.
“We’re a museum. This is what we do. We protect artifacts of history,” he said. “Artifacts like this are always welcomed in our museum and of course we would take it back without even batting an eye.”