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The Rail Thing

Carson Park’s mini-train an intergenerational treat

Barbara Arnold, photos by Andrea Paulseth

RAINY TRAIN. Some light rainfall couldn’t stop Andrew and Amanda Schrader and their son, Everett, from the diesel-powered mini-train in Carson Park on a recent Sunday.
RAINY TRAIN. Some light rainfall couldn’t stop Andrew and Amanda Schrader and their son, Everett, from the diesel-powered mini-train in Carson Park on a recent Sunday.

Riding the mini-trains in Carson Park is an annual tradition for innumberable Chippewa Valley families, among them the Kents of Eau Claire and Hudson. This year’s trip fell on Father’s Day, when three generations of the family gathered for the very first ride taken by 16-month-old Camden of Eau Claire. Not even a rain shower could stop the family pilgrimage as the toddler’s mother quickly changed Camden into a bright yellow rain slicker hoodie for a ride in one of the red diesel-powered train’s open passenger cars.

At age 6, Camden’s cousin Heath is a veteran of six journeys on the scaled-down but fully functional railway operated by the Chippewa Valley Railroad Association. The Hudson boy’s favorite part of the ride is the railroad crossing at the service road to the station marked with familiar black-and-white crisscrossed signs. As Camden arrives, Heath has just finished a ride in the caboose that trails the covered yellow-and-green passenger cars of the railroad’s coal-fired, steam-driven locomotive.

“I love the engineer and conductor. They are so enthusiastic. I love their childlike spirit.” – Francesca Zinn of Eau Claire, describing the Chippewa Valley Railroad Association volunteers who run the mini-train in Carson Park

“What you don’t do for your grandkids,” says Eau Claire resident Mary Myers, whose grandsons Nolan, 4, and Marshall, 2, are enjoying the ride in a covered passenger car with their parents, son Andy and his wife, Susan. Grandmom and granddad are huddled in an adjoining car. “We first came here in 1985 on Labor Day for our other son Nick’s birthday party,” she continues. “We filled an entire train with 20 people. It was a memorable birthday party.”

Another Eau Claire family, Jacob and Francesca Zinn and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Teodora, are walking along the 16-gauge rail track. Teodora, on her daddy’s shoulders, waves to a mini-train as it passes by. They have ridden it in the past. “What’s not to like about it?” says Jacob. Francesca quickly chimes in: “I love the engineer and conductor. They are so enthusiastic. I love their childlike spirit.” She adds: “Teodora is fascinated with the whistle and the steam shooting out of the engine.”

It’s rolling ’round the bend. Jacob and Francesca Zinn and their daughter, Teodora, watch as the Chippewa Valley Railroad Association’s coal-powered steam train chugs on down the track.
It’s rolling ’round the bend. Jacob and Francesca Zinn and their daughter, Teodora, watch as the Chippewa Valley Railroad Association’s coal-powered steam train chugs on down the track.

This intergenerational fascination with the bygone days of passenger rail travel is the driving force behind the Chippewa Valley Railroad Association, whose 30 volunteers – including 12 hard-core regulars – operate the train rides on Sundays and holidays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The volunteers run two 1/4-scale trains: One is pulled by one of two coal-fired steam locomotives and the other by a diesel locomotive. The organization is funded solely by ticket sales, sponsorships, and donations. Volunteers work year-round on Sunday afternoons. Last winter, for example, they built and painted a passenger car from scratch in the railroad’s machine shop attached to the ticket station.

Several train buffs started the organization in 1974: Roth Schleck, then president of First Wisconsin Bank; Peter Beck, an executive with NSP, now Xcel Energy; Dave Farr, an attorney; businessman A. Owen Ayres; and Dave Peterson, an architect. “We ran our first train during Sawdust City Days in 1977,” Peterson recalls in a phone interview. “The Paul Bunyan Camp was located there then. After the huge storm in 1980, we cleared out the mess of fallen trees and expanded the track to a 6/10-mile loop. We stayed when the logging camp moved north in the park.”  

After his initial ride on the steam powered train, young passenger Heath Kent  asks: “What’s that?” pointing to a red-colored building and a contraption north of the ticket station and boarding platform. Conductor Chuck Lindvig, a retired kitchen cabinet sales rep, answers the little boy. “This is the machine shop where we repair and do maintenance on the machines,” he says. “And here is the turntable, which connects to the roundhouse, where the train engines and passenger cars are stored.

“Over here is where we dump the embers from the steam-fired locomotive,” he continues, picking up what look like a couple of weird-shaped rocks from a pail. “When coal burns, it initially burns a lot of byproduct, and then leaves what doesn’t burn, which is called ash and clinkers.”

Lindvig is clad in a dark suit and a conductor’s hat, and this year all volunteers similarly wear appropriate garb. As stationmaster, Lindvig’s wife, Ellen, wears an outfit similar to his. Engineers wear striped overalls with a bandana and matching cap, while safety persons wear navy blue-colored overalls with a bandana and matching cap.

The platform, where passengers board the trains, is made up of metal posts reclaimed and donated by McDonough Manufacturing in Eau Claire from the original “400” train station which was located just off the Madison Street hill. The “400,” operated by the Chicago & North Western Railway, ran between Chicago and Minneapolis, and Eau Claire was one of the stops. It was called the “400” because it was scheduled to travel 400 miles in just about 400 minutes.

Another structure on the property is a switching tower relocated from the railroad crossing where the Milwaukee Road crossed the Northwestern Railroad west of Banbury Place. According to the group, it’s the oldest surviving railroad tower in the state and the only existing railroad building in Eau Claire. Members hope to be able to open it up to the public in the near future.

The scenic and short mini-train route runs through a picturesque grove of white and Norway pine planted by Kiwanis volunteers in the 1930s when the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp first opened, and then swings around the edge of the cliffs looking over Half Moon Lake.

 “The route is beautiful, and it was a great experience for my 2-year-old grandson. I wish the route was a little longer,” says Eau Claire resident Sharon Seymour. Perhaps with additional funding and more volunteers, that can happen in the future.

Chippewa Valley Railroad Association mini-train • open noon-5pm Sundays and holidays, Memorial Day through Labor Day (in 2014, that’s May 26-Sept. 1) • 611 Carson Park Drive, south of the stadium parking lot in Carson Park • $3 adults, $2 children ages 2-12, free for kids under 2 • www.chippewavalleyrailroad.com • (715) 831-0900 during railway hours only