Typically, the Twin Cities & Western Railroad crossing at Birch Island Road in north central Eden Prairie is quiet; farm road quiet. Ducks, wind-rustled willows and night frogs are interrupted only a few times a week when the warning bells and lowering traffic gate arms signal the approach of a freight train.
Powerful diesel locomotives pulling coupled tank, hopper, gondola and box cars can take six or more rumbling minutes to pass over Birch Island Road.
Then, the quiet routine of this rural swath of Eden Prairie returns to the warblers. Locals with leashed dogs follow the TC&W tracks or disappear into Birch Island Woods.
Sunday morning was different. A few automobiles were perched nearby along the narrow road apron that drops down to Birch Island Lake. At the crossing, a hand full of people were futzing with cameras or waiting with their dogs. In the morning sun, they were listening for something in the northeast.
A young man in an orange jacket with two cameras said he was making videos of a restored, 1950s passenger train operated by a railroading fan club. For the weekend, it was being called “The Gourmet Express.” He was from Green Bay and told me that he had shot video of the train in Wisconsin and Illinois.
A friend of his was track side with a cell phone next to the parked train in Hopkins. The friend would alert his buddy on Birch Island Road when the train departed for Eden Prairie and roll on to Chanhassen and Glencoe.
Another 25 minutes quietly passed. A few cars stopped, lowered their windows and asked questions. They carefully drove on, found parking spaces and walked back to the crossing. A breeze launched autumn leaves on them as they approached.
Suddenly, the bells and blinking red lights of the railroad crossing signals woke up as their arms lowered over the road. It was about 10:20 a.m. One hundred yards out, Milwaukee #261 sounded its own bell and then its whistle blasts, as white and black smoke pulsed from its stack.
The rhythms, chugging, hisses and haunted horn whistles – the smell of fired coal – made steam engines the drama queens of the Industrial Age. The few survivors remain so today.
The 261 and diesel locomotive 32A in the back moved a 13-car train with sleek, historic, style-smart passenger cars over Birch Island Road in 31 seconds. Restored and painted in bold, Milwaukee Railroad maroon and orange, the 32A seemed to be asking as it powered away, “Do you miss me?”
A minute later, more leaves quietly floated down from the aspen and maples along the roadbed.
Check out the slide show below for more photos.
For more information on local train restoration and tours go to the Friends of the 32A website.
Read Jeff’s earlier EPLN article about the restored trains here.
Note: Writer Jeff Strate also serves on the EPLN Board of Directors