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Return trip doubtful for locomotive 2719

Soo Line locomotive 2719 puffs out black smoke as it travels along Duluth’s Lakewalk on the way to Two Harbors. One of 58 steam locomotives nationwide listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 2719 was built in 1923. (2007 file / News Tribune)

The return of Soo Line Locomotive No. 2719 to Eau Claire is unlikely to happen anytime soon, according to a resolution the Eau Claire City Council will take up this week.

Councilman David Strobel had been leading the effort to get the historic train locomotive and tender back to the Chippewa Valley for display, but found that costs and other considerations had made that unfeasible.

“The logistics of moving a train are very difficult,” said Strobel, who opted to not seek re-election in this month’s election.

The city exercised its option to buy 2719 back for $4 last summer and has been trying to work out arrangements since then to get it from the Duluth Depot where it’s been for more than a decade back to Eau Claire.

“When we got the estimate back to move the train it was much more than initially anticipated,” he said.

But Strobel, who led the effort, found the lowest cost estimate — not even a firm bid — was about $85,000 over the $100,000 the city had set aside for the project. And coordinating the three different railroad companies that own sections of the tracks between Eau Claire and Duluth also proved a daunting task.

With his term expiring this week, Strobel is advancing a resolution he hopes could still be a win-win option for the city. If approved Tuesday by the council, the city would retain ownership of the locomotive and tender, but allow it to be leased by a museum and require that it be properly stored and maintained with hopes to get it in working order within a few years.

“The important thing here is Eau Claire retains ownership of the train,” Strobel said. He added that means it could be brought back in the future should the city or a local group have the ability to do so.

A potential lessee is the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, which had leased and displayed the locomotive for years from the restoration group that previously owned it and has stored it since the city bought it.

Should that museum no longer be interested in the locomotive, the resolution includes the option to see if museums or private groups elsewhere in the nation would be interested in leasing or buying the locomotive.

“That would be the last resort,” Strobel said.

Councilman Jeremy Gragert, who supported Strobel in his effort, said the resolution gives the city options.

“It is important the city owns the train,” he said. “It’s an amazing artifact from our history.”

After the locomotive pulled passenger cars in the region during rail travel’s heyday, the railroad donated it to the city and it was on display from 1960 to 1996.

The city then sold 2719 for $1 to a local volunteer group, the Locomotive and Tower Preservation Fund, so it could be restored to working condition. The organization leased it to the Duluth museum in 2006, but the city retained the ability to buy back the locomotive. It ran between Duluth and Two Harbors for the North Shore Scenic Railroad until its boiler license expired in 2013. The railroad eventually replaced engine 2719 with locomotive 28 once it was restored in 2017.

In July, the council agreed to buy 2719 for the price of $4 with the goal of returning it to the area for display.

There were community meetings, temporary storage space volunteered and lots of research that went into the effort to return the train since last summer, but its leading proponent lamented that the journey just wasn’t possible this time.

“We just didn’t quite get there,” Strobel said.

The News Tribune contributed to this report.