Love For A Locomotive

Hometown Heroes, People
on February 18, 2007

A rare 1913 locomotive named the Soo Line 1003 sits hissing on the track in Burnett, Wis. (pop. 919), surrounded by parents posing their children under its headlight and railroad enthusiasts peering at its well-preserved parts.

Right on schedule, the engineer rings the train’s bell and pulls on its hollow-voiced whistle. The locomotive spews a plume of steam and smoke 300 feet above its smokestack. Seconds later, the ground shudders and 82 feet of unleashed power rolls forward.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” says Bob Krahn, 64, of Fox Lake, Wis. “I love the steam engine. I enjoy its sounds and sights. Pictures just don’t do it justice,” he says, watching as the Soo Line 1003 heads to Hartford, Wis. (pop. 10,905), for a holiday festival.

Dwarfed by a half-million pounds of iron and steel, Krahn’s granddaughter, Brianna, 4, also is impressed by its size. “It is very big,” says the wide-eyed youngster.

The locomotive owes its existence to Burt Mall, of Long Grove, Ill. (pop. 6,735). As its owner and chief caretaker, Mall is among only a handful of Americans who own a full-size railroad steam engine. Without him, the Soo Line 1003 would be a relic parked in a museum—or worse.

“It would have ended up some place rusting,” says Bob Ristow, a volunteer who helps Mall bring the steam engine to community festivals and special events up to three times a year.

“There’s a romance with old locomotives,” says Mall, 65. “I was always interested in them.”

Mall’s passion for trains began as a child with a secondhand Lionel train, developed while part of a high school railroad club, and eventually led to summertime railroad jobs during his college years. His passion grew full-size when he learned of the 1003.

After nearly a half century of service, the locomotive was retired to a Superior, Wis., park in 1959. Volunteers tried restoring the inoperable engine in the 1970s and then sold it partially disassembled to another Superior group, the Wisconsin Railway Preservation Trust (WRPT), in 1994. The WRPT had the train operational by 1996, when Mall joined the group. After his career as an executive in a manufacturing company, Mall enjoyed the greasy, dirty challenge of keeping the old engine running.

“I’ve always liked the real thing,” Mall says. “I was going to retire and wanted something to keep me active. So many steam engines are disappearing in the U.S. It’s a shame.”

In 1999, when the WRPT couldn’t continue maintaining the 1003, Mall and partners Gary and Karin Ostrand purchased it.

“It’s fun to tell people, ‘My dad owns a steam engine,’” says Dane Mall, 35. “They say, ‘What scale, what model?’ We say, ‘No, he owns a real steam engine, like the old Iron Horse.”

A half-dozen like-minded railroad enthusiasts donate their time to help Burt with the steam engine, which is on display at Hartford’s Wisconsin Auto Museum. Volunteer Ken Ristow, locomotive engineer at the Milwaukee Zoo, uses his vacation to run the 1003.

“I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” Ristow says. “I was meant to be part of this history—to learn it myself and pass it on to others.”

The locomotive undergoes weeks of preparation before taking off on a trip. Before leaving the museum, Mall and his volunteers perform government-required tests on the boiler, safety valves, air brakes, running gear and pressure gauges. They inspect the firebox, fill the 8,000-gallon boiler, start and tend the fire, and build up steam pressure. Mall also must coordinate schedules with the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad Co. and communicate with event sponsors.

“I like large projects,” Mall says. “And I like bringing history to people who don’t have any idea what a steam engine looks like.”

It’s no surprise parents bring their children, train enthusiasts set up tripods with cameras and people respectfully stand up as the Soo Line 1003 passes by.

“Engines like this built the country,” says Dan Sanger, a Wisconsin and Southern Railroad Co. employee. “I really appreciate anyone who can keep them alive for future generations to see what built this country.”