Railroad buffs rolling in for first Mankato convention

·4 min read

May 18—Railroad buffs are rolling into town this week for Chicago & North Western Historical Society's first convention in Mankato.

The four-day event, "Rails & Rivers," takes place at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center.

The 1,900-member society works to preserve the history of the 147-year-old C&NW, prior to its merger into the Union Pacific in 1995. The society also preserves the history of the Chicago Great Western, a railroad taken over by the C&NW in 1968, and the Minneapolis & St. Louis, which was acquired by the C&NW in 1960.

All three railroads once ran trains to Mankato, as did the Omaha Road, another C&NW acquisition and the first railroad to reach Mankato in 1866.

Terry Davis, of Hutchinson, is among more than 100 society members registered for the gathering across the street from a historic brick building that once served as the city's rail depot. He's looking forward to staying in a downtown hotel close to Union Pacific's route through Mankato.

Heavy wheel clatter and clank and locomotives' warning sounds have been music to his ears since Davis' childhood days in Cleveland.

"We lived two or three blocks from the tracks ... I would hear a whistle blow at the crack of dawn, jump out of bed and go watch the train go by.

"Our railroad was the Milwaukee ... with its orange locomotives," he said to explain his fondness for a rail line that no longer exists as a separate entity.

Several presentations are planned during the convention, including many with photographs of rail action in the Mankato area from the 1950s through the 1990s.

This week's event is the society's 46th convention. Chicago, Milwaukee, Rockford, Illinois, St. Paul and Rochester are former host cities.

"Our members are a mixture of railroad historians, former CNW employees and model railroad enthusiasts and preservationists. Everyone has a different interest," said Tim Coyle, of Omaha, the organization's president.

Davis is a co-chair of the Mankato convention, originally slated for May 2020. COVID-19 restrictions prompted organizers to postpone the gathering.

"I'm excited to bring the convention here; we've been working on it since 2018," Davis said.

He is among the presenters slated to discuss the society's efforts to preserve the history of four railroads that once served Mankato and the surrounding area.

Davis is in charge of slide shows featuring railroad photographs taken during the 1950s up to the 1990s by Loren Johnson, a local train buff.

Mankato is on the Union Pacific's former Omaha Road/C&NW main line between the Twin Cities and Sioux City, Iowa, as well as on the original St. Peter & Winona (C&NW) east-west line known for being served by Alco locomotives in the 1960s and 1970s. Mankato also was at the west end of a Chicago Great Western line from Faribault and Red Wing, as well as being the midpoint on a Milwaukee Road route from Farmington to Wells until the late 1970s.

Chicago & North Western Historical Society conventioneers will tour museums in former railroad depots west of Mankato at Currie, Sleepy Eye and Tracy. Attendees also will take a bus trip to visit to a model railroad clubhouse in St. James.

Davis, who has two train sets in his home, plans to be aboard the tour bus. He was a teenager when he first took up the hobby.

The public may attend a swap meet 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday in the civic center's banquet hall. There is an admission fee for the event featuring railroad-related merchandise such as books and photographs. Vendors also will offer model train accessories.

Area rail enthusiasts will find lots of model railroad items for sale, Davis said.

"Our society offers many special run model railroad cars, books the society has produced, calendars, and back issues of our popular North Western Lines quarterly magazine. There have been several articles about railroading in Mankato in issues since late 2019," he said.

A $240 registration fee is charged for non-members who want to attend the full convention. For more about Rails & Rivers — Mankato 2022 or the C&NW Historical Society, visit: cnwhs.org/wp1/conventions-meets.