The Locomotive William Crooks

Here’s one of the earliest known images of the Wm. Crooks showing its original straight top boiler and triple domes before it was rebuilt 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)

The St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, founded in 1857 as the state’s first railroad and the original predecessor of James J. Hill’s 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 fifty-one 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. The <Wm. Crooks> would become an ambassador of the nation’s rail history.

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 (now Minneapolis), 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 included Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, former governor Henry Sibley, and James J. Hill, who would one day own both the St. Paul & Pacific and the Wm. Crooks. 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 ten miles of railroad, returning at 6 p.m. Four days later the Wm. Crooks began regular service between the two communities.

A roundhouse fire almost destroyed the Wm. Crooks in 1868. Albion Smith not only rebuilt the locomotive, but thereafter served as the train’s engineer for the rest of its active life. The outward appearance of the locomotive changed several times during its service career as the railroad changed names several times before Hill purchased it in 1890 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. Hill and engineer Smith became great friends.

As the first of nearly 1,800 Great Northern steam locomotives that followed, the Wm. Crooks was venerated by the railroad company at Hill’s behest. Its service as a passenger locomotive ended September 30, 1897, after more powerful locomotives rendered it obsolete. Although scheduled to be scrapped, Hill himself stepped in and had the locomotive restored to pull his private train. The last official use of the locomotive for true railroad functions is believed to be Hill’s seventieth birthday in 1908 and carried Hill’s train until the Empire Builder’s death in 1916.

Following Hill’s death, the Wm. Crooks began a career as the railroad’s ambassador. During 1924 it made promotional 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, 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 myriad 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.

On June 28, 1954—ninety-two years after its first run—the Wm. Crooks was placed on “permanent” public display in the St. Paul Union Depot. While ownership of the engine was transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1962, the engine remained at the depot even after it closed as a rail terminal in 1971. In 1974, while it waited for a new home, the Wm. Crooks was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The following year it was moved to Duluth’s Lake Superior Railroad Museum. It resides there today—on indefinite custodial loan from the Minnesota Historical Society.

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)


From (Zenith City Press, 2024) by Tony Dierckins and Jeff Lemke Click on the cover to preview the book.