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Volunteers give Depot trains annual dusting

Phil Hanson of St. Paul uses a cloth to polish the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Steam Locomotive No. 227 at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth on Saturday morning during the museum’s “Clean Team” day. (Clint Austin / / 4
Neal Vanstrom, president of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, holds the reverser key to the diesel locomotive Missabe 316 in Duluth on Saturday morning during a ceremony that transfered the ownership from the Missabe Railroad Historical Society to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. (Clint Austin / / 4
Mike Sofie of Cottage Grove, Minn., uses a cloth to polish woodwork of the Duluth & Iron Range car No. 19 at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth on Saturday morning. (Clint Austin / / 4
Carter Mavec (from left), 9, of Eveleth, Tessa Shauer, 10, of Duluth, and Greta Schauer, 10, of Duluth, clean the cab area of the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Steam Locomotive No. 227 at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth on Saturday morning during the museum’s “Clean Team” day. (Clint Austin / / 4

Brian Hoag remembers the moment he became a railroad buff.

“We were up here in 1967,” the Oakdale, Minn., man said as he narrated a childhood trip to Duluth. “I was 8 years old, sitting along 40th Avenue West. Train came down Proctor Hill. Watching that train come down — the engineer saw me.

“My eyes must have been like this,” Hoag said, indicating eyes like saucers.

“He points and waves. (I’ve been) hooked ever since.”

Hoag was standing in the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth on Saturday morning. He’s president of the Missabe Railroad Historical Society, a group of about 400 people linked by their love of the old Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway.

About 40 of the members were at the museum on Saturday for their annual DM&IR Clean Team day. They clean and shine anything in the museum that’s Missabe-related, wiping out a year’s worth of dust, grime and fingerprints.

Although the museum and the historical society are separate entities, they have a long and close relationship, Hoag said. Before cleaning activities began on Saturday, the historical society officially gave its six-axle DM&IR 316 diesel locomotive to the museum. The museum had been maintaining it and using it anyway, members of both groups explained.

“We want to preserve as best we can what still remains,” explained Jim Maki, 68, of Mountain Iron as he polished an ore car. It was an appropriate job for Maki, who filled ore cars with pellets during part of his 33-year career with Eveleth Taconite.

The museum’s massive rail cars and especially its locomotives make an adult feel small. One can only imagine how they appear to 8-year-old Gus Schauer of Duluth, his twin sisters Tessa and Gretchen, 10; and their friend Carter Mavec, 9, of Eveleth.

The four children were cleaning under the supervision of Todd Mavec, Carter’s dad. They reached as high as they could as they polished the solid black surface of a rail car. They had done the same thing the year before, the kids said, and found it to be a fun activity. The lure of pizza later on also was mentioned.

The mostly male cleaning contingent ranged in age from the children to young dads to retirees.

John “Bing” Mattson, 70, of Cloquet was using a toothbrush to reach into the awkward spaces of a compressed air braking system that once was used in a steam engine. Mattson, who grew up in Two Harbors, said his father worked for the DM&IR, and Mattson often was around steam engines. He never grew to appreciate the change to diesel.

“Diesel — they’ve got all the glamor of a Velveeta cheese box,” said Mattson, who participates with the Clean Team although he’s not a member of the historical society.

Most of the historical society’s members come from a five-state area, Hoag said, but some come from distant states and even from other countries.

Something about the Missabe Road — a common name for the DM&IR — draws people, said Damian Kostron, a member of the historical society for 25 years.

“There’s a mystique about the Missabe,” the St. Paul man said. “The large locomotives, the ore trains, the very centralized location. … It’s a very quaint railroad.”

The Missabe has “a cult-like following,” added Hoag, who has a Missabe model railroad setup in his home. “It has a very special place in railroad history in what it did and how it performed and the fact that it was one of the smallest Class 1 railroads there was. Yet you look at their equipment. They kept their equipment spotless. The work ethic of the employees of the Missabe was second to none.”

The DM&IR 316

Ownership of the locomotive, built in 1960, was transferred as Hoag handed the “reverser bar” — essentially the equivalent of a car’s keys — to Neal Vanstrom, president of the railroad museum’s board.  

 Canadian National — purchaser of the DM&IR — had donated the 316 to the Missabe Railroad Historical Society, said Tim Schandel, the museum’s curator.

The locomotive already has seen considerable use on the North Shore Scenic Railroad, said Ken Buehler, museum president, and will continue to be used.

“It definitely belongs here,” Hoag said. “This is the rightful home for the 316.”