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Thanks to Ken Buehler, the whole world loves Lake Superior Railroad Museum

The man who's led the Duluth museum for the past 20 years became an unlikely YouTube star telling the stories of all the trains in the St. Louis County Depot.

Ken Buehler.
Ken Buehler, executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and general manager of the North Shore Scenic Railroad, poses next to the museum’s 1861 William Crooks steam locomotive May 24. The William Crooks was Minnesota’s first locomotive.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — "I'm not really a train person," admitted Ken Buehler.

That may seem like an astonishing statement coming from the man who's led the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and the North Shore Scenic Railroad for 20 years. From the guy who's starred in a video about every train in the St. Louis County Depot. From the person whose catchphrase is: "If you work it hard enough, it all comes back to the railroad!"

"I'm a history person," Buehler explained. "I love the history, and you can't divorce railroads from history. There were two Americas: one was the agrarian society where you lived and died within a 25-mile radius, and then there's the America today, and the transformation was the railroad."

A broadcasting veteran who happened into a relationship with the Railroad Museum and the Scenic Railroad, Buehler has the warm, enthusiastic style of your favorite high school teacher. Buehler didn't set out to be a teacher, but his online stories about railroad history, in videos co-starring the museum's peerless holdings, have now been viewed nearly a million and a half times on YouTube.

"I kept pushing for, 'Just do a normal video and say what year this thing was built and what it did,'" said Josh Miller, North Shore Scenic Railroad manager and the director of Buehler's videos. Instead, Buehler insisted that every video hook viewers with a compelling narrative.

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"Everything was a story about something and why it was there," said Miller, "which really brought all of our videos to life."

The videos took off as a pandemic project. When COVID-19 arrived in March 2020 and museums were forced to close their doors, Buehler went to Miller, a former broadcast colleague and one of the few people remaining to tend the trains at the near-empty Depot.

"I said, let's go on the YouTube channel and announce today that we're going to do one of these every single day we're closed," Buehler remembers. "At the time, it was only going to be two weeks. I told him: 'It can't be any more than three (weeks).'"

As the shutdown continued, so did Buehler and Miller. As the weeks ground on and the videos kept running, museum staff saw their viewership numbers rise — along with museum membership, despite the facility itself being closed.

"One-hundred forty-eight (videos) later," Buehler told the News Tribune in an interview just outside his office, the project "has led to the largest membership we've ever had at the museum: 1,100-plus. We have members in Europe. We have members in Australia. I was here last week, I'm walking through the museum and (a visitor) goes, 'Ken! Ken, right? Thank God you're here! ... I've watched all your videos, watched them over and over again!'"

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North Shore Scenic Railroad Christmas Tree Train nears the Christmas tree lot Nov. 27 at the Knife River Depot.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

The man lived on the East Coast, it turned out. Planning a West Coast flight for work, he booked an extended layover in the Twin Cities and rented a car just so he could make a pilgrimage to the Railroad Museum.

While the videos have been a dramatic success, Steve Sandberg said Buehler's been working for over two decades to build awareness of the museum — and to make it worth going out of the way to visit.

"The Duluth museum," said Sandberg, president of the Friends of the 261 railroading organization in Minneapolis, "is probably one of the premier railroad museums in the world today. Not only in the United States, but in the world. And a lot of that is because of Ken and his team."

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Running a museum — and a railroad to boot — is a second career for Buehler, who spent the first half of his working life in broadcasting. "I'm going to be 70 years old this year," he said. "If I'd known I was going to be 70, I would have taken better care of myself."

Buehler was born in Port Edwards, Wisconsin. "I always wanted to be in radio," he said. I can remember doing the PA announcements at the high school track and field and football and basketball games. Any time to speak was something that I enjoyed."

He came to the Twin Ports for college at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, seizing opportunities as they presented themselves and working extensively in local broadcasting, ultimately co-owning 13 radio stations with Patty McNulty. Buehler and McNulty were colleagues when the Ridder family sold WDSM and KZIO to the two of them in 1982.

"Everybody thought," recalled Buehler about his relationship with McNulty, "'well, you guys are in business together. You're so cute. You should date.' We did. 'You're dating! You should get married.' We did. We got divorced. We bought 11 more radio stations."

"We never didn't get along," agreed McNulty, who remains a good friend.

"Ken is a work person. He loves working. Ken is in the office at six in the morning. He works seven days a week if he can. That's his greatest passion," continued McNulty, "and I had a different desire in life. And so I went to him one day, and I said: 'We have to get divorced for the sake of the children.' At that time, we had 70 children." (Seventy employees, that is.)

After selling their media holdings in the 1990s, Buehler and McNulty joined with another broadcast veteran, Duke Skorich, and co-founded an ad agency. Buehler wouldn't be long for the advertising world.

"I wasn't good at it; I didn't like it," said Buehler. "But the client I did like was this place." He gestured around at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum's conference room, festooned with railway paraphernalia.

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Ken Buehler.
Ken Buehler talks with a visitor in his office’s conference room, which is full with railroad-related artwork and artifacts.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Buehler joined the North Shore Scenic Railroad in 1999 as marketing manager — on a volunteer basis, since the railroad was on the ropes financially. "I thought, you know, I really don't like the ad business. I don't know if I like the railroad business or not," Buehler recalled. "What the hell, I said. I can afford to work for six, eight months without any pay."

Finances gradually improved as the railroad and associated museum trained additional volunteers to staff its operations. Ridership also rose, and Buehler was named executive director in 2002. During his time at the railroad, Buehler said, ridership has gone from 35,000 passengers per year to over 100,000.

"We're not the same railroad we were back then," said Buehler. "We updated the narration to make it more interesting. We added dinner trains, added murder mystery trains, added music to our pizza trains. Wine tasting train, the beer train, the pumpkin train, bringing in Thomas the Tank Engine."

Thomas has been a popular addition — to say the least. "Last year, 18,594 of his closest impersonal friends showed up to see him and Sir Topham Hatt and the rest of that whole entourage," said Buehler.

"Ken's been very attentive to making sure that the quality of the train ride is high," said Sandberg. At the same time, Sandberg added, Buehler and his staff have devoted a great deal of attention to restoring vintage cars and acquiring new ones.

"They've continuously increased the quality of the cars that people ride in," Sandberg continued, noting the railroad's acquisition of vintage dome cars. "The dome cars are a huge attraction on the on the rail line."

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One of the North Shore Scenic Railroad's vintage dome cars.
Samantha Erkkila / 2016 file / Duluth News Tribune

Since the North Shore Scenic Railroad's 1989 dedication, four years after Amtrak ended regular service to Duluth, the railroad has been operating without competition for passenger rail service in the city. That will change if Buehler and other advocates are successful in making the proposed Northern Lights Express a reality, creating passenger service between Minneapolis and Duluth.

Despite recent setbacks, Buehler is convinced that "eventually" the NLX, as it's known, will run. "It's a transportation system that works around the world, and is growing around the world."

In anticipation of the Scenic Railroad losing its novelty, Buehler is working on new attractions — including executive rail cars that could each be a vacation rental home. Renters could board on a Friday and be pulled up to Knife River, where they'd stay for the weekend before being hauled back to Duluth.

For now, though, riders are finding the Scenic Railroad offers ample novelty: Buehler cites "pent-up demand" for the record number of riders in 2021, and reservations for this summer "are running 53% ahead of last year." The railroad is staffing up to help train volunteers and meet that demand.

"The quality of the train ride increases passenger revenue," noted an impressed Sandberg. "Then the money that they make from that goes back into more interpretive displays in the museum and more artifacts that they can collect and put on display."

While Buehler and his staff are focusing on accommodating the influx of real-world visitors, video production has slowed down. Still, occasional videos and the library of lockdown productions are continuing to win new members for the museum.

Miller, who first directed Buehler when the two were doing news at KBJR, said the videos' star is easy to work with. "He's a really great presenter," said Miller. "He can run without scripts, and kind of just have (cue) cards, and we're able to plow forward with very little pre-production time."

When asked if any productions were particularly memorable, both Buehler and Miller referenced a May 2020 video illustrating the 12-step program that 19th-century Pullman porters had to follow to properly serve a beer. ("Not to be confused with other 12-step programs if you've had too many beers," the host noted.) In the video, Buehler played both a customer and a porter, with some modest camera tricks to make it appear he was serving himself.

In the initial weeks of the pandemic, Buehler would end each video with a safety mantra. As he phrased it in a video posted March 21, 2020: "Wash your hands, cover your coughs, don't touch your face, keep that social distance." Pause. "And let's take care of each other."

It was an optimistic and reassuring call to cooperation, voiced during a health crisis that would prove bitterly divisive. "Have you noticed how everyone's a lot kinder these days?" asked the host in another video from that month.

"My rose-colored glasses are about that thick," said Buehler in the News Tribune interview, gesturing to indicate a robust lens. "I like to think that I'm enthusiastic about everything."

"If you have to set your alarm to get up to go to work in the morning, you might want to think about finding another career path," said Sandberg. "A guy like Ken, he doesn't set his alarm in the morning. He gets up every morning and goes to work because he's passionate about what he does."

"It's always been a nice museum," said McNulty, "but Ken really put it on the map. It's so well known across the country, and that is his work. I hesitate to call it work, because to Ken this is play. It's love."

In one of his first videos, Buehler sat in the museum's post office car and told the true story of a grandmother in her 80s. When she was growing up the woman's father was a station master, and she would collect each day's post from a young mail car worker who would become her husband — after he worked up the courage to properly introduce himself.

The woman's descendants had never heard the story, and they might never have if they hadn't happened to visit the Lake Superior Railroad Museum together, prompting her to share it.

"Nothing happens in our museum until somebody tells somebody else their train story," said Buehler, noting that the museum used to receive frequent visits from people who made their living on railroads. As those experiences fade from living memory, the roles of the museum and the railroad have changed.

"We used to have a lot more people that knew about railroads coming here. Now, we have people that are coming here because they want to ride the train and have an experience," said Buehler. "The reason we need the railroad is to give new people an opportunity to build a train story."

MORE BY JAY GABLER
The Orlando theme park has an average 4.7 rating from Google users. By that metric, Duluth and Superior have a few spots that can beat it.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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