FARGO, N.D. — A vintage steam locomotive will chug through southeastern North Dakota soon, pulling excursion cars and giving people a rare opportunity to see train travel as it was more than 70 years ago.
The arrival of the famed Milwaukee Road No. 261 to the Fargo/Davenport, Lisbon, Wahpeton and Kindred areas marks the 30th anniversary of Red River Valley & Western, a regional railroad operating in North Dakota.
The three-hour, 70-mile-long evening trips take place June 1-3.
Steve Sandberg, volunteer locomotive operator, said the old engine weighs almost 1 million pounds, roughly the weight of a 747 airplane.
Older people remember traveling by passenger car and seeing the massive locomotives, but the younger generation is often astounded by the sight.
“The kids get a big kick out of it. Most have never seen a steam engine in their lives,” Sandberg said.
The engine is capable of traveling 80 mph but won’t go nearly that fast during its North Dakota jaunts. Sandberg said while the tracks it will travel over are well-maintained, they’re designed for hauling farm products.
“We’ll take a nice leisurely cruise in the evening,” he said.
The No. 261 is the largest coal-burning steam engine around and was built in 1944 during World War II, specifically for the war effort.
The engine and 14 historic coach cars that will be part of the North Dakota excursion have all been restored and are maintained by the Twin Cities nonprofit, Friends of the 261. Sandberg is part of that group and is chief operating officer of the Railroading Heritage of Midwest America organization.
He said the No. 261 is mostly in storage, but they bring the engine and cars out a few times a year for special events.
“This year we are thrilled to be able to stretch our legs a little and get out to North Dakota,” Sandberg said.
The last time the locomotive was in North Dakota was 1998, for a BNSF event.
Turns out, BNSF will play a role in the RRV&W anniversary celebration. It’s bringing the steam locomotive and passenger cars from the Twin Cities to North Dakota and back again.
On Thursday, June 1 and Friday, June 2, the engine pulls out of Fargo/Davenport at 6 p.m. for a trip to Lisbon and back, taking riders through the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway.
On Saturday, June 3, it departs Wahpeton for Kindred and back, on the only former Great Northern route operated by RRV&W.
Sandberg said a few tickets are still available at https://261.com/.
People who aren’t riding are also welcome to come out to see the train on those days.
“They should be able to get fairly close,” Sandberg said.