An historic railway, dating back to the 1940’s, welcomes nearly 16,000 families to Wisconsin Dells every year.
Tucked off County Road N, it’s not hard to miss the smell of the coal and hear the sound of a train whistle. At the Riverside & Great Northern Railway, families hop aboard a mini steam locomotive and take a trek through the woods.
Board member, conductor and engineer Jim Schultz of Sheboygan volunteers his time with the rail because he’s always been fascinated with trains.
“I love coal smoke in my lungs and steam oil in my veins,” said Schultz. “You got to love it to be behind a 400 degree plus fire. Just open up your oven at home, sit in front of it for awhile. You’ll get a taste of what it’s like to be in a steam locomotive.”
The steam locomotives that run here are smaller versions of trains from the past.
“Our track is 15 inch gauge, which is 15 inches between the rails,” explained Schultz. “Most trains that ran back then were on standard gauge, which is 4 feet 8 inches in between the rails.”
Elmer and Norman Sandley created the mini railway in Janesville in the late 1940s and called it the Sandley Light Railway Equipment Works. Schultz said the Sandleys started the business to help tell the story of steam locomotives in the U.S.
“There’s just something about the technology, the moving parts, the smells, the sights, the sound that captures your imagination,” he said.
But not every homeowner was a fan of steam locomotives running through the area.
“Steam locomotives would sometimes spit out some soot and soiled their freshly laundered laundry hanging on the clothes line where their homes were,” said Schultz.
As a result, the father-son team moved their business to Wisconsin Dells in the 1950’s after discovering an abandoned right-of-way.
Then in 1988, the Riverside & Great Northern Preservation Society, Inc. acquired the railway and its facilities.
Although these locomotives are smaller, retired mechanical engineer Gary Martin says 250 volunteers work to preserve the railway. He said maintaining it, along with two steam locomotives and fourteen buildings, is a year round job.
“We’ve got one member that basically does nothing but paint. About the time he gets done with the last one, he’s ready to start over again,” said Martin.
Right now, volunteers are focused on repairing their tracks. Preservation society President Steven Bradley said heavy rainfall destroyed half the railway last summer.
“We got 4 inches of rain in about 2 hours time and got an additional 10 inches of rain throughout the night,” said Bradley.
That created landlines and washouts, which means a shorter ride than usual for families.
“We are making an extra trip out to make up for the rail’s lost time you would have,” said Bradley.
The Riverside & Great Northern Railway is working with FEMA to help pay for the repairs.
“We’re going to have to take out loans from the bank, because FEMA will pay all but 17 percent,” said Bradley. “But not until the work is complete. So we have to fund the work first.”
On a warm summer morning, that doesn’t stop volunteers from getting Locomotive 98, built in 1957, up and running.
“We have volunteers that come as far as Florida, North Carolina, and Texas,” said Bradley. “Myself, I’m from Savannah, Illinois about 3 hours away and I make that trip every weekend.”
Throughout the spring, summer and fall, volunteers prepare the steam engine for visiting families.
“It takes about 2-2.5 hours to fire up a steam engine. Takes a while to boil fifty gallons of water,” explained Bradley.
“Back it up to the water tank, fill it up with water, couple it to the passenger cars that are in place already. First train at 10,” added Shultz.
Real coal is also loaded into the locomotive before the first ride.
Once the water is filled and the cars are coupled, families, like the Wojciks of Walworth, Wisconsin, await departure.
“Kids love the trains, I love the trains. That’s why we came out,” said Bryan Wojcik.
Holding their son, Jaffe Wojcik added, “We were here when he was a three months old maybe, or maybe a year old. So we were just coming back to see it.”
Once the conductor shouts, “All aboard!” families step into one of eight windowless passenger cars.
After the train picks up speed, families take in nature and fresh air along the Wisconsin River. The train takes a brief stop on its route, where the conductor explains the railway’s history and has a little fun.
Holding up a shovel, Bradley jokingly asked the kids, “Can any of you tell me what this is?”
The kids shout, “Shovel!”
“Not around here, this is a direct fuel injector,” laughed Bradley.
After the ride ends, it’s not really over for railway volunteers who get to do it again tomorrow.
“It’s a worthy cause. Beautiful scenery and did I mention steam locomotives?” smiled Schulz.
The Riverside & Great Northern Railway runs from May until October.
SONG: “Mystery Train” by The Band feat. Paul Butterfield