The Saga of the William Crooks

The Great Northern’s First Steam Locomotive

The deep blue-green color of the Wm. Crooks’ boiler jacketing (also referred to as sea green or gray-green) is probably the ideal shade of green that marked all 1,800 Great Northern steam locomotives until the war years of the 1940s when they were universally painted black. There was no true company standard for the actual shade of green used which made for variation in the rich green color used in the paint shops of the different divisions. While road grime and weather, leaking steam connections and bad water modified the livery in time, it is a sure thing that each engine began service with a boiler closely matching that of the VIP Wm. Crooks shown here at the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948. The paint job shows the locomotive lettered as it should be for the 1st Division of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, but it’s also sub-lettered Great Northern Railway so that modern-day visitors to the fair would recognize who actually owned the engine at that point in time. (Image: Mac Owen, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

The Minnesota & Pacific Railroad, founded in 1857 as the state’s first railroad and the original predecessor of the Great Northern Railway, began as a simple line connecting Stillwater, Minnesota, to St. Paul with aspirations to eventually run between St. Paul and the Red River Valley on up to the Canadian Provinces. On September 9, 1861, the first steam locomotive—a small, balloon-stacked 4-4-0 American type built that same year by Smith & Jackson of Patterson, New Jersey—arrived in Minnesota. It was small by today’s standards; the combined length of engine and tender was just shy of 51 feet—shorter than one of today’s typical boxcars. It proudly carried the number 1 and when it went into service in 1862 it was named in honor of the railroad’s chief engineer, William Crooks, who had become a colonel in the Minnesota Volunteer’s Sixth Regiment during the Civil War. The Wm. Crooks would become an ambassador of the nation’s rail history, and rests today inside the Lake Superior Railroad Museum inside Duluth’s historic Union Depot.

The preliminary action of moving this engine from New Jersey to the trading post at St. Anthony Falls—the headwaters of the navigable Mississippi—was no small undertaking. Like other pioneer engines, it was probably carried as deck load on a Great Lakes barge to the Port of Milwaukee. Once unloaded and steamed, it made its own way to the barge landing at La Crosse over the rails of the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien Railroad, later a part of the Milwaukee Road. Final entry into St. Anthony Falls—today’s Minneapolis—was made by river steamer. The Crooks was loaded onto a barge at La Crosse after a good deal of trouble then pulled as far north as could be accomplished by river steamboat.

Here’s one of the earliest known images of the Wm. Crooks showing its original straight top boiler and triple domes before it was rebuild after the roundhouse fire of 1868. The logs in the tender are the fuel that fire the boiler of this wood-burning locomotive. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

Among the witnesses to this event was the Canadian born James J. Hill, a young, 24-year-old entrepreneur, shipping agent, steamboat owner, and merchant in basic commodities. Although he was the first coal dealer in St. Paul, his contract with the new railroad was for the cords of wood needed to fire the line’s first locomotive. Some 29 years later Hill would own not just the locomotive, but the entire railroad.

Months passed between the time the little engine arrived and when enough track could be built to operate a first train from St. Paul to St. Anthony, and in the meantime the railroad went bankrupt and reorganized as the St. Paul & Pacific. The Wm. Crooks carried its first train load of passengers on June 28, 1862. Those aboard that train included the Governor of Minnesota and many other dignitaries who were either famous then or soon would be, including Henry Sibley, Alexander Ramsey, and Hill himself. The locomotive and several newly constructed passenger cars chuffed out of St. Paul at 2:30 p.m. on its initial run to St. Anthony, signifying the completion of the first 10 miles of railroad, returning at 6 p.m. Four days later the Wm. Crooks began regular service between the then fledgling Twin Cities.

This view of the Wm. Crooks is believed to have been taken in 1908 when James J. Hill was celebrating his 70th birthday. That’s Hill, fifth from the right. The locomotive’s details on top of the boiler changed frequently during its service life. Shown here with the new wagon top boiler it had just a single steam dome in front of the cab and a sand dome centered on the boiler just behind the bell. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

The Crooks was originally built as a wood burner with a very small tender that held only two cords of wood. Pioneer steam locomotives like the Crooks weren’t just used to pull passenger trains. Their earliest and most important duty was to help build the railroad itself, bringing supplies used to build right-of-ways and small outposts that eventually became communities. The speed of trains back in these days was usually 15–25 miles per hour, but with good track and hearty fuel the Crooks could easily run 60 m.p.h. flat out.

Good, clean-burning fuel was an issue. Supplies of fuel such as coal and kerosene were simply not available, but a ready supply of timber was usually on hand, free for the taking, requiring little more than a sharp axe to procure. Trees were cut and wood burned in the fireboxes of these early locomotives, heating river water in their boilers to make the steam that propelled the locomotives. But as engines like the Crooks needed to burn good quality, dried wood, fresh cut green wood gathered enroute often resulted in as much steam in the firebox as in the boiler.

Several commercial scale models have been made and marketed of the Wm. Crooks over the years but none as fine as the ones shown here. This picture from 1927 shows the models that were hand-built by 15 master craftsman who worked for Great Northern at the time. The set includes the engine and cars that replicate exactly the way this equipment looked on June 28, 1862 when the train made its very first trip from St. Paul to St. Anthony. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

The outward appearance of the locomotive changed several times during its service career. Cosmetic changes occurred each time the railroad itself changed names: In 1879 The St. Paul and Pacific became the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway, and in February 1890 Hill purchased the line and renamed it the Great Northern Railway. The Crooks underwent major boiler and firebox changes, and its domes were rearranged several times. When the engine was converted to burn coal, fake racks of wood were placed along the top of the tender sides to make it appear as though the Crooks was still a wood burner.

The most drastic modifications came in 1868 when a terrible roundhouse fire partially destroyed the Crooks, which was housed inside at the time. The burned hulk of the locomotive and its final fate was in question until the railroad hired a man named Albion Smith to take personal charge of rebuilding the locomotive to its former glory. Albion became the locomotive’s personal engineer after the rebuilding project and was the oldest engineer on the Great Northern when he retired. He and Mr. Hill were good friends and it was Albion who kept Mr. Hill in the loop on all things concerning the Crooks.

On its way to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 the Wm. Crooks is greeted by crowds of people who are welcoming it back to the place it was created in 1861—Patterson, NJ. (Image: GN Railway photo from the Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

As the first of nearly 1,800 Great Northern steam locomotives that followed, the Wm. Crooks was venerated by the railroad company at Mr. Hill’s behest. It was maintained as a completely separate class on the active roster of engines until the transition to internal combustion power was completed in the mid-1950s. It was used in active passenger service until September 30, 1897 when it was rendered obsolete by more powerful locomotives. Although scheduled to be scrapped, Hill himself stepped in and had the locomotive restored to pull his own private train. The last official use of the locomotive for true railroad functions is believed to be Hill’s 70th birthday in 1908.

The Wm. Crooks began a very active old age after its retirement from active service in 1897. As mentioned, it served as Hill’s private locomotive until his passing in 1916. During 1924 it made trips from Chicago to Seattle and in 1927 it was displayed at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s “Fair of the Iron Horse.” It even played a grand role in a live, staged play at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. There, along with the Northern Pacific’s Minnetonka locomotive of roughly the same vintage, the Crooks rolled onto the stage under its own steam with replicas of the first cars it pulled back in 1862. The Wm. Crooks made many appearances at community events—in many cases in communities that the little locomotive actually helped to build. The engine’s last big show was the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948–49 as part of the “Wheels A-Rolling” pageant. After that, the engine’s cylinders, rods and bearings were all rebuilt one last time at the Great Northern’s Dale Street Shops in St. Paul.

When the Crooks participated in the 1939 New York World’s Fair it played a part in a live stage play dressed up as Hudson River Railroad #1. The Crooks pulled its short train of passenger cars onto the huge set while under its own steam power to throngs of spectators as actors played their own parts in the play, including one man who played the role of Abraham Lincoln. The Northern Pacific’s Minnetonka was also involved in the play pulling a train of log cars across the stage. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

On June 28, 1954 the Wm. Crooks ceased to wander. On that date, the 92nd anniversary of its historic first run, it was placed on “permanent” public display in immaculate condition inside the concourse of the St. Paul Union Depot (SUD), just across the street from the main offices of the railroad it started in business in 1862. Actual ownership of the engine was transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society in June 1962 with the engine remaining on display inside the depot. With the closing of SUD as a rail terminal in 1971, and subsequent abandonment of the building, a new home needed to be located for the venerable locomotive. (The SUD has since been renovated.)

The Wm. Crooks was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 5, 1974. Shortly thereafter a new home was created for it in Duluth when it was moved to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum located on the lower level of Duluth Union Depot in May, 1975. It resides there today—on indefinite custodial loan from the Minnesota Historical Society—resplendent in its original colors, exactly as restored by the Great Northern in 1948. The Wm. Crooks is one of just a handful of steam locomotives from the Civil War-era that survive today—and may well be the finest, most colorful example of any of them. It’s certainly one of the best kept locomotives from any era in railroad history and a true historic treasure for the State of Minnesota—and Duluth.

Scroll down for more images of the Wm. Crooks.

Special thanks to Charles F. Martin for his kind contribution to this story adapted from his book, Locomotives of the Empire Builder. Charlie was a good friend of Zenith City Online contributor Jeff Lemke and an expert on all things Great Northern. He founded the Fraternal Order of Empire Builders that eventually became the Great Northern Railway Historical Society. Long live the Great Northern!

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’s the Wm. Crooks and its proud little train, shown enroute to the Grand Rapids Jubilee Celebration that took place in July 1941. Look carefully at the tender and you’ll see display wood attached to the top on each side to make it look as though the engine is still wood-fired. Under the bright colored tarp is the true source of fuel for this converted locomotive—coal. Minnesotans will enjoy seeing the Crooks in a final summer of fun before things in every state in the Union are immersed in far more serious activities. The onset of World War II is less than five months away. (Image: GN Railway photo from the Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
The Wm. Crooks was a high-wheeled 4-4-0 American type that could do 60 m.p.h. with good fuel and fine track. Her specifications were simple. Driving wheels were 63 inches in diameter. She had a total weight of 55,400 lbs. and a weight on drivers of 35,950 lbs. This was adequate for pulling but a handful of cars and reason enough why the Crooks was rarely photographed pulling anything other than the two cars she is most associated with. Seen here with her usual train in tow during 1945, all steam on the Great Northern Railway would be retired by the end of 1957, and replaced with diesel-electric locomotives. She must have been a marvel to witness in action with her bright brass bell swinging back and forth as it clanged and the shrill wail of her steam whistle signifying the passing of what fortunately still is—a very special machine. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
It’s July 30, 1945 and the Wm. Crooks gets some special attention and lubrication at the Jackson Street roundhouse in St. Paul. With the war in Europe already over, the battle in the Pacific has just two more weeks to go before everyone—including the railroaders of the day—can breathe easier and be able to enjoy showing off the pride of the line once again. (Image: GN Railway photo from the Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
On April 13, 1954 the Crooks was being moved into its display position inside the St. Paul Union Depot. Due to space limitations the engine and tender had to be partially disassembled in order to fit through existing doorways so as not to damage the engine, or the building. The gentleman with the cigar in his hand watching this move intently is Harry P. Congdon, Vice President and General Manager of the St. Paul Union Depot Company. It remained on display here until it was removed from St. Paul, and moved to Duluth in 1975. (Image: GN Railway photo from the Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
William Crooks—Welcome to Duluth! This move was far simpler than the last one. It’s May 28, 1975 and the Lake Superior Railroad Museum is about to welcome the venerable engine—all in one piece—into their collection of legendary steam locomotives. The Crooks made the trip from St. Paul to Duluth and is seen here being placed inside the building by Burlington Northern switch engine #592. Moments later the engine rolled to its display position inside the museum closing out what was very likely its final rail journey through the State of Minnesota. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

The Great Northern’s First Steam Locomotive

10 Responses to The Saga of the William Crooks

  1. Hi Kevin – Thanks for your information. I have quite a few more images of the Wm. Crooks too and hope to be able to find a new way to share those at some point. Be sure to visit my Flickr site as well as there are a great many more historic Duluth-Superior railroad images there now as well.

    Here’s the link:


  2. This is a great archive of information about the Wm. Crooks. Thanks for posting it.

    The Wm. Crooks also traveled to Seattle in 1909 as part of the Hill exhibit at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, and was displayed alongside a Mogul freight locomotive.

    The Great Northern was actually formed using the charter for the Minneapolis and Saint Cloud Railroad. The name was changed to the Great Northern and the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba was leased to this new company for 999 years, that lease beginning Feb. 1, 1890. In 1907 the Great Northern formally acquired the “Manitoba” along with most of its other subsidiary companies.

  3. Hi Ann –
    That’s fantastic news and I hope that the outing goes great for everyone. I was a pack leader for 4 years with my own son being involved in scouting. We always enjoyed the field trips especially. Please feel free to pass on my contact info as both my website and Flickr image albums have a lot of great old photographs and dialog about railroading at the Head of the Lakes. I’m happy to share what I know about the old days in Duluth, Superior, the Iron Ranges, and surrounding communities. Cheers!

    Here’s the website:
    Here’s are the image albums:

  4. As it happens today, May 21, 2016 200 Boy Scouts from the Voyageurs Area Council of northern MN, WI and Gogebic county MI are participating in Railroading merit badge at the Duluth Depot. The Scouts will ride the train from the Depot to Tom’s Logging Camp where they will camp for the night. Interest in railroading remains strong in the eyes of a youth.

  5. As a 12 year old Boy, I witnessed the removal of the William Crooks from the Saint Paul Union Depot. The Front doors were carefully disassembled from the floor to the ceiling. The engine was disassembled into two parts,cab and rolling boiler, raised by craine inside the building, rotated 90 degrees to the left and rolled on temporary rails out the building. Once outside the building it was raised by craine onto a flatbed truck. What happened after that I don’t know. The work was done by Great Northen workers at night. My grandfather was one of the workers. He said they were paid very well for the job. He allways said that the engine belonged in Saint Paul and they were worried that there would be people who would protest its removal. After the engine was gone, they reinstalled the doors so there was no damage to the depot. The original doors are still there today.

  6. Hi Steve –

    Thanks for all of your hard work keeping the Wm. Crooks and Minnetonka looking good. I remember the first time I saw them inside the museum; marvelous machines indeed.


    Jeff Lemke

  7. I grew up in Duluth/Superior – THE PORTS! I compliment Jeff Lemke for bringing so much railroad history to our attention and the photos are a great reminder. As a small boy, I was privileged to view the WILLIAM CROOKS at the Chicago Railroad Fair. I am a member of the Duluth Missabe Railway Historical Society which puts together a “Clean Team” each spring to volunteer to clean the Duluth Transportation Museum where the Crooks resides. For several years it has been my honor and privilege to dust, clean and polish both the WILLIAM CROOKS and the NP MINNETONKA. We make them spotless for the summer tourists.

  8. Hi Douglas,

    There are plenty of photographs around showing the Wm. Crooks being dismantled before being placed in St. Paul Union Depot (SUD) and then again being reassembled inside the building. That was in 1954 when SUD was an active structure. When it closed in 1971 the building was rapidly prepared for demolition. Without having any photographic evidence to support how the locomotive was actually removed from SUD all I can do is speculate. It makes economic sense to try and remove the locomotive and tender fully assembled, especially if we take into consideration that any part of the building that might have been in the way in 1954, mattered not after the building was closed. Any wall could have been knocked out to expedite the removal of the Crooks.

    It’s possible the engine was trucked from St. Paul to Duluth but it could have just as easily been a slow end-of-train rail move that brought the good Colonel into Duluth in 1975. Without a news story or photograph to support my hypothesis it’s just a guess. Perhaps someone from the transportation museum who was actually there at the time can shed some light on how the Wm. Crooks made the physical journey from St. Paul to Duluth. Clearly, it rolled into the museum in one piece so my best guess would be it was either trucked into town or came in on the tail end of a “special” train from St. Paul.

    Many moves on the railroads, especially to bring equipment into museums, are often done under the cover of night and completely unofficially. Local railroaders will usually tell you that if the officials couldn’t see it, they couldn’t say no, and so the non-profits often benefited from both the equipment donation and the free transportation afforded by less formal handshake agreements instead of contracts. Sometimes these things really are donated and other times things had to be done a little more creatively to get a car or engine from point A to point B without causing a commotion.

    Although I have quite a few negatives showing the Crooks making the journey from Rice’s Point to Duluth Union Depot I have nothing showing the longer trip from the Twin Cities to the Twin Ports. It would be nice to know.

    Thanks for your question; good one.


    Jeff Lemke

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