Sneak Peek: The Locomotive Minnetonka

The Minnetonka, aka “Old Betsy, the Queen of Polson Railroad.” Today the Minnetonka lives at the Lake Superior railroad Museum in Duluth, Minnesota. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

A few weeks ago we introduced you to the historic Great Northern Railroad‘s locomotive Wm. Crooks, which went on to become the motive power for James J. Hill‘s private train and eventually ended up right here in Duluth at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. This week‘s sneak peek from our forthcoming book Twin Ports Trains: The Historic Railroads of Duluth & Superior 1870–1970 tells the story of the Crooks‘ companion at the museum, the Northern Pacific locomotive Minnetonka.

The NP Locomotive Minnetonka

To facilitate the construction of its rail line west from today‘s Carlton, Minnesota, toward the Pacific Northwest, in July 1870 the Northern Pacific Railroad purchased four 0-4-0 locomotives built by Smith & Porter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, each named for a Minnesota community: Itaska, St. Cloud, Otter Tail, and Minnetonka. The locomotives pulled supply trains carrying men and equipment to and along the NP tracks as they were being built.

Vertical boiler 0-4-0 locomotives were among the earliest in the U.S., first made in 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. The 0-4-0s were called “saddle tankers” for the large square box that stored water for the boiler (and carried the locomotive’s name). An 0-4-0’s oversized smokestack also worked as a giant spark arrestor, capturing burning embers to prevent forest fires as the little engine chugged down the track. A large kerosene lantern served as its headlight.

Stamped “No. 1,” the Minnetonka arrived in Duluth on the steamer Meteor on July 10, 1870, just a few weeks after westward grading of the railroad’s transcontinental line had begun at Northern Pacific Junction (today’s Carlton, Minnesota) and was immediately pressed into service aiding in the construction of the railroad westward. Its sister locomotive, the Itasca, landed in Duluth in August to help. When the line reached as far as Brainerd late in 1870, the Minnetonka was drafted for similar service in the Pacific Northwest. The locomotive was shipped by rail to San Francisco and then by boat to Kalama, Washington. From there she helped build the NP east from Kalama to Tacoma and later from Ainsworth to Spokane, Washington. Meanwhile, the Itasca kept helping the railroad push westward.

The Minnetonka remained on the western end of the NP system until 1886 when she was sold to Olympia, Washington, lumberman B. B. Turner, who added a small fuel tender behind the locomotive to extend its operating range. Turner sold her to the Port Blakely Mill Company in 1889 for use in the construction of the Puget Sound & Grays Harbor Railroad, a logging line between Kamilcho and Montesano, Washington. In 1895 Port Blakely sold her to the Polson Logging Company at Hoquiam, Washington, where she became known as the “Queen of the Polson Railroad” and, more affectionately, “Old Betsy.” The Minnetonka stayed on the job for Polson until her 1928 retirement.

Soon thereafter, the nation’s major railroads began making plans for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Northern Pacific rival Great Northern planned to bring its famous steam locomotive Wm. Crooks to the exposition. Executives at NP who felt their railroad deserved equal representation decided to look for survivors of their original 1870 class of steam locomotives. They found the Minnetonka sitting intact in the woods near Hoquiam—none of her three sister locomotives had survived. She was sent to St. Paul for restoration, after which she and the Wm. Crooks appeared before vast audiences at the fair. The Minnetonka then served as the NP’s ambassador, appearing at events throughout the country, including the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair and the “Wheels-A-Rolling” pageant at the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair, where it operated under its own steam.

Ownership of the locomotive transferred from the NP to Burlington Northern in 1970 when NP merged into that line, and was transferred yet again to the BNSF Railway in 1995 when BN and Santa Fe merged. When the Lake Superior Railroad Museum opened inside the 1892 Duluth Union Depot, “Old Betsy” was placed on display within. Today the NP’s first steam locomotive sits inside the museum’s historic train shed right alongside Minnesota’s first-ever steam locomotive Wm. Crooks.

The latest idea for the cover for Twin Ports Trains (like the book itself, it’s a work in progress…).