Their glory days are long gone, but trains will never die.
Thanks to the almost evangelical zeal of their devotees, the locomotives, coaches and cabooses of the 20th century still are serving passengers today — on excursions and as overnight lodging, if not for transportation.
Noisy, smelly and outmoded, these trains still are marvelously evocative of a more romantic era, and those who love them are legion.
So rather than fading gracefully into the mists of time, they’re bellowing into the present, with plumes of black smoke and earsplitting whistles.
Steam locomotives, which tamed the frontier and shaped the nation, inspire the most reverence. But they’re also costly to keep up, labor-intensive and often grounded by high insurance rates.
In the Twin Cities, however, more than 700 members of the nonprofit Friends of the 261 have managed to keep a 1944 Milwaukee Road steam locomotive and a fleet of vintage cars operating. They offer fall-color excursions to Duluth or down the Mississippi River to Winona, in collaboration with Amtrak.
Rail fans come from all over the nation to volunteer as engineers, conductors and brakemen on the runs, says Judy Sandberg of Shoreview, administrator of Friends of the 261.
"It's history, it's fun, it's keeping something alive that's a dying thing,'' she says. “It’s a huge challenge.’’
Teams of avid volunteers also keep passenger trains running in Duluth, Boone, Iowa; and the Wisconsin towns of Osceola, Spooner, North Freedom, East Troy and Laona.
From these towns, vintage trains traverse scenic routes on tourist excursions, many of which also include lunches, stops for pizza, even marshmallow roasts and murder mysteries.
People who want to spend even more time on trains can stay overnight in cabooses and Pullman cars, converted into inns.
Linda Bracho wasn’t a big fan of trains when she stayed in a 1920 caboose in Napa Valley on her honeymoon. But it gave her an idea, and she later opened the Northern Rail Traincar Suites in the woods near Two Harbors.
It consists of 10 boxcars, connected by a hallway lined with vintage train photos and covered by a domed roof.
“I felt like a little kid again when I was in the train, and I wanted to re-create that for people,’’ she said. “We get kids who have read ‘The Boxcar Children,’ and adults who are avid collectors of train memorabilia, or whose parents worked for the railroad. It’s fun to hear the stories.’’
Many train aficionados take their vacations on the real train — Amtrak, whose Empire Builder connects the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago.
Day trips on Amtrak actually can be cheaper than tourist excursions, especially if you buy in advance and use a AAA discount.All train excursions are very popular, especially on weekends and in the fall, so reserve early.
From St. Paul, Friends of the 261 runs special excursions on its 1944 Milwaukee Road steam locomotive.
Destinations include Milwaukee-Chicago and the Mississippi River to Winona.
Regularly scheduled excursions
Volunteers run excursion trains in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan.
For details, see Riding the rails.
In western Minnesota, the Whistle Stop Inn B&B in New York Mills includes 1903 and 1909 Pullman cars with double whirlpools, gas fireplaces, VCRs and mahogany paneling, and an 1893 caboose with whirlpool tub and VCR. Two other rooms are in the adjoining 1903 grand Victorian. 800-328-6315.
Not far away, Maplelag cross-country ski resort near Detroit Lakes includes two cabooses. Rates include three meals a day during ski season; the cabooses also are available in spring and fall, but not summer. 800-654-7711.
Three miles north of Two Harbors on Minnesota's North Shore, the Northern Rail Traincar B&B, across the Stewart River from Betty's Pies, has 17 attractive rooms and a condo in 10 boxcars, connected by a hallway lined with vintage train photos and covered by a domed roof. 877-834-0955.
Along the Mississippi River in De Soto, Wis., south of La Crosse, a 1954 caboose on five acres includes a gas fireplace and deck with hot tub. It's rented by Vacation Rentals by Owner.
Just to the north in Sparta, Wis., Caboose Cabins
rents a 1968 Soo Line caboose that sleeps four and has a refrigerator,
microwave, grill and fire pit. It's a block from the northern trailhead
of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail and on the La Crosse River. 608-269-0444.
In Mazomanie, Wis., the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wis., hosts its annual Gandy Dancer Festival in August. It's named for the men who worked on the rails.
There's bluegrass music, juggling and hay-wagon rides. The Milwaukee Road exhibit at the Mazomanie Regional Heritage Center will be open.
Near Cassville, Wis., Stonefield historic site celebrates Railroad Days in August with hobo stories, music, a bank robbery and carriage rides for kids.
In Boone, Iowa, near Ames, Pufferbilly Days is held the weekend after Labor Day. Named for the small steam cars that carried coal, the festival includes rides on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, model train exhibits, a spike-driving contest, a parade, music and an arts fair. 800-266-6312.
In Green Bay, the National Railroad Museum, a 33-acre complex on the Fox River, is open year-round. Admission is
$10, $7.50 for children 3-12, plus $2 for a 25-minute ride on a vintage
train, May through September and October weekends.
In July, it holds a
World War II re-enactment and USO Dance. In October, it offers rides
on the Great Pumpkin Train. For more, see Packer country.
Northwest of Chicago, the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, between Marengo and Woodstock, is highly rated by parents. Most popular is the Day Out With Thomas event, which includes a ride on Thomas the Tank Engine.
In Duluth, the Lake Superior Railroad Museum is part of the Depot, from which North Shore Scenic Railroad excursions leave. It has a large collection of train memorabilia and exhibits and also sponsors very popular Day Out With Thomas weekends.