Old Betsy, the Queen of the Polson Railroad

The Northern Pacific Railway’s locomotive Minnetonka

This 1948 promotional postcard by Northern Pacific shows the venerable Minnetonka, built in 1870, alongside the then new diesel-electric locomotives built for use on the North Coast Limited. The Minnestonka burned wood to heat boiler water that created steam for motion. The large smoke stack was actually a giant spark arrestor that captured burning embers to prevent forest fires as the little engine chugged down the track. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

Last month this column told the saga of the William Crooks, the first steam locomotive of the Great Northern Railway, which now rests fully restored inside Duluth’s Lake Superior Railroad Museum within the historic 1892 Union Depot. Another early steam locomotive sits on display at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth alongside the Crooks, the Minnetonka. While the Crooks certainly had a more glamorous role on the Great Northern Railway, the Northern Pacific’s Minnetonka has its own unique story to tell about the early days of railroading in Minnesota—and America.

Some of the earliest steam locomotives in the United States were small, vertical boiler 0-4-0 models made during the 1830s. The engines had just four driving wheels for traction. Lacking good suspension systems, they rode roughly on the crude track systems of the day and pulled just a few cars at a time. By the early 1840s the somewhat larger 4-2-0 and 4-4-0 engines were being built with better, equalized suspension systems that provided a smoother ride. They also had horizontal boilers that created the “American” look for steam locomotives.

Old Betsy was a type of locomotive known as a saddle tanker. The saddle tank is the large box straddling the boiler that carries the name Minnetonka. That tank is where the boiler water was stored. Since all of that weight was carried over the driving wheels it helped to dramatically increase the pulling power of the little 0-4-0. Originally this locomotive was without tender. As built by Smith & Porter, wood was to be stacked at the rear of the operator’s cab. The tender was added after 1886 to carry more fuel and extend the operating range of the locomotive. The headlight was a large kerosene lantern. This engine used the old link and pin style couplers instead of the more modern knuckle couplers. Even today, nearly everything about this engine is sincere to the way it was originally designed and built in 1870. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection) 

These larger locomotives became popular with the railroads. Eventually, a revised version of the 0-4-0 came along that featured these new design features—an equalized suspension and a horizontal boiler—making it ideal for switching applications and hauling materials short distances. These revised engines carried water and fuel onboard without a trailing tender, so the entire weight of the engine and its supplies were carried solely by the driving wheels. This greatly increased tractive effort—pulling power.

The Northern Pacific Railway (NP) was able to speed up construction of its lines in July 1870 with the purchase of four such 0-4-0 locomotives built by Smith & Porter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, each named for a Minnesota community. The first carried the number 1 and was named Minnetonka. Her three sister engines were named Itaska, St. Cloud, and Otter Tail. All of these locomotives were purchased to pull supply trains along with the men and equipment that would ultimately create the NP.

On April 15, 1976 the Minnetonka was loaded onto a Burlington Northern flatcar at Northtown, Minnesota—in route to Duluth in what is believed to be her most recent train trip. (Image: Burlington Northern, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

According to NP documentation, the Minnetonka arrived in Minnesota just a few weeks after westward grading of the railroad’s transcontinental line had begun from a point near Northern Pacific Junction—today’s Carlton, Minnesota. On arrival the Minnetonka was immediately pressed into construction service in northwest Minnesota. When the line reached as far as Brainerd late in 1870, the Minnetonka was drafted for similar service in the Pacific Northwest where the NP had started building its line coming east. Her long journey began in 1871. The locomotive was shipped by rail to San Francisco and then by boat to Kalama, Washington. She was used in construction service from Kalama to Tacoma and later from Ainsworth to Spokane, Washington.

The Minnetonka remained on the western end of the NP system until 1886 when she was sold to lumberman B. B. Turner and delivered to him at Olympia, Washington. Turner added the small fuel tender behind the locomotive to extend its operating range—likely a good reason why the Minnetonka would out-live her siblings. He used the locomotive in logging operations in the vicinity of Olympia, but in 1889 she became the property of the Port Blakely Mill Company.

This photograph of Old Betsy shows her pulling the load she was most accustomed to hauling during her active career—timber. As a logging locomotive she helped several logging firms in the Pacific Northwest to bring lumber to market. Today she is displayed with this same car in tow to help remind us of her roots working in the mighty forests of Washington State. (Image: Wes Harkins, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

The new owners used the locomotive in the construction of the Puget Sound and Grays Harbor Railroad, a logging line between Kamilcho and Montesano, Washington. It was also used in the work of extending spurs, tearing up old spurs, and in the transportation of men between the camps and their work in the woods. This operation continued until 1895 when the Minnestonka was sold to the Polson Logging Company at Hoquiam, Washington.

At Hoquiam the Minnetonka became the “Queen of the Polson Railroad,” but was more affectionately known as Old Betsy. She survived a devastating 1902 forest fire that swept through a portion of the woods near Hoquiam while stationed along the middle fork of the Hoquiam River. After that exciting brush with potential extinction she continued hauling logs steadily until 1906 when she was put on work gang detail—her last assignment before being retired in 1928—while still being sound and in good working condition.

Old Betsy is shown here bundled up for a wintery trip down Interstate 35. This locomotive has enjoyed more kinds of trips than simply rolling down the track on her own wheels. She’s been loaded onto flatcars and pulled into town by other trains. She’s been loaded onto flatbed trucks and moved out of Duluth, and then again, trucked back into Duluth. But she hasn’t wandered for quite a few years now which is probably a good thing for something of this age, delicate nature, and historical significance. (Image: Dave Carlson, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

About this time, railroads began making plans for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Rival Great Northern (GN) would surely bring their famous William Crooks to center stage at the event. NP executives felt their railroad deserved no less attention and soon enough their operating department officers decided to look for survivors of their original class of steam locomotives.

After a lengthy search, the Minnetonka was discovered intact sitting in the woods near Hoquiam and was sent to St. Paul for restoration. None of her three sister locomotives remained. The little engine became an ambassador for the railroad appearing in community events. Just like the GN’s William Crooks, it too appeared before vast audiences of people who attended the Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress Exposition in 1933–34 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939–40. It even operated under its own steam at “Wheels-A-Rolling,” the Chicago Railroad Fair Pageant of Transportation Progress in 1948.

Size is a relative thing. If we examine the Minnetonka‘s statistics she sounds pretty big. In her day, weighing in at 12 tons and measuring just over 27 feet long she was a capable locomotive. The truck she’s loaded onto at Rice’s Point in Duluth can easily carry a load weighing as much as 40 tons—more than three times the weight of the Minnetonka. Clearly, time and technology eclipsed the old girl long ago but we can still enjoy seeing her on display at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum located inside the historic Duluth Union Depot. (Image: Dave Carlson, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

Ownership of the locomotive transferred from the NP to Burlington Northern (BN) in 1970 when NP merged into that line, and transferred yet again to the BNSF Railway in 1995 when BN and Santa Fe joined forces. When the Lake Superior Railroad Museum opened, Old Betsy was placed on display inside the building on long-term custodial loan. But believe it or not, the old girl’s travels weren’t finished just yet. The railroad actually took the engine back for display at their headquarters for a time. At Duluth, she was put on a flatbed truck, securely tied down, then wrapped in tarps to protect her during the snowy, slippery mid-winter journey along Interstate 35.

Happily, and without mishap, the Minnetonka was eventually trucked right back into the Zenith City. Like the William Crooks, the little locomotive is a true cornerstone character of Minnesota’s earliest railroad history. Together, Old Betsy and William Crooks enjoy quiet retirement in Duluth, right next to each other, right where they should be.


Each month on Zenith City Online Jeff Lemke traces the ongoing history of railroads that served the Twin Ports from 1870 to today. Catch up with his past installments here, and visit his fascinating site, Twin Port Rail History, here.

The Northern Pacific Railway’s locomotive Minnetonka

6 Responses to Old Betsy, the Queen of the Polson Railroad

  1. Hi Barbara –

    Thanks for taking the time to share your story about your adventure with the Minnetonka. That must have been quite the ride. I might have a few more pictures of the Minnetonka being loaded in Duluth. I’ll have to look in case you or Vic appear in any of them.


  2. How exciting to see this article and these pictures. My husband, Vic Johnson, drove the truck that took “Old Betsy” down to Ft. Worth in January 1996. Since I was also a BNSF employee I could ride along with him. It was quite a trip. By the time we got to the top of Thompson Hill the tarp was torn to shreds. We tried to find a way to keep her covered and finally put on new tarps and then kind of ‘wove’ the ties so there were smaller areas to flap around. The cover finally came off somewhere along the way. I was worried that someone might see the brass fittings and try to steal them during the night because they were all fitted to just put a wrench on them and could be easily removed. We made it to Ft Worth. The engineer window was missing on one side and I didn’t know if it blew out or came out of the museum that way. It was unloaded into a big building down there and as far as I knew was never put where they had planned to put it. He went back down in August and brought it back to Duluth.

  3. Hi Mark –

    While Duluth is my home away from home I’m an Illinois resident as well. If you visit my web site you’ll find a story there that you might enjoy reading about the first trip I made to the Twin Ports as a teenager on the “Where We Started” tab. Thank goodness my dad trusted me with the car keys back in the mid-1970s. While he enjoyed fishing on Grindstone Lake near Hayward, Wisconsin I was all about discovering Duluth-Superior with my camera, and I’ve been enjoying trips there ever since.

    Thanks for your interest.


  4. Hi Nancy –

    That is a shame that you didn’t get to see this museum. I’ve been in the railroad business and hobby for 40 years and been employed as a conductor and locomotive servicing engineer for the last dozen. As a research specialist I was employed outright or hired to find and research prototypes for the model hobby industry to help the manufacturers make the model trains that they sold through retail outlets. I’ve been to practically every notable rail facility and train museum in North America and I can say without hesitation that the museum in Duluth is one of the finest in the USA. The collection of equipment is special to Duluth-Superior. The building that everything is housed inside of is the old Duluth Union Depot. The care and attention that this equipment gets is likely second to none. They even run trains that you can ride between Duluth and Two Harbors during the summer months. I hope you have a chance to return to Duluth to see this wonderful facility and meet some of the people that make it all happen. In the mean time please keep watching my posts on ZCO. I have a lot more material to share about the railroads of Duluth-Superior, and the surrounding communities too.


    Jeff Lemke

  5. The first time the Minnetonka came to the Museum I had the honor of applying a coat of black paint to the engine, it has since been repainted when the BN took it to headquarters for display. I volunteered many years down at the depot from the very early 70’s before it was a museum till the late 90’s. The Minnetonka has always been a favorite little tea kettle to me and it really belongs in Duluth. I live in Illinois now and love seeing posts about the museum and Duluth.

  6. I am soooo sorry that Hubby and I missed this place when we were in Duluth about a month ago. I don’t know when we will ever be able to get back up there. Hubby would have been entranced.

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