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Loco for locomotives

When our two sons were little, attending the Annual Steam Threshing Jamboree at Prairie Village, in Madison, South Dakota, was a yearly late summer ritual.

There was something for everyone at the Jamboree. The boys liked the workhorses and the hit-and-miss engines, and my wife enjoyed perusing the flea market. I liked everything about the Jamboree, from the old tractors to the steam-powered sawmill to the displays of household items from days of yore. You know you’re getting old when stuff from your childhood can be seen in a museum.

But we all agreed on one thing: we really, really liked their train, which was pulled by a steam locomotive.

The boys have long since flown the nest, and my wife is currently nursing a new knee, so I attended the Jamboree by myself this year. Going it alone was anything but lonely.

This was because everyone there, like me, was as enamored of ancient iron. It was like attending a club meeting where everyone agreed on everything – except perhaps the “right” tractor color. John Deere was the featured brand this year, so I was in putt-putt heaven.

Walking the grounds, I heard the distant “toot-toot!” of a locomotive’s steam whistle. I was drawn toward the sound like a fly to an open kitchen door.

As I approached the locomotive, which is named No. 29, I espied a guy dressed in grimy striped bib overalls and an engineer’s cap. Based on this evidence, I guessed that he was the train’s engineer.

His name was Pat Routier, and he was indeed the engineer. Pat and his fireman, LeRay Swedeen, comprised the entire crew in charge of operating No. 29. I had a plethora of questions for Pat beginning with 'How long does it take to start a steam locomotive?'

Pat Routier and LeRay Swedeen
Train engineer Pat Routier and his fireman LeRay Swedeen.

“It took us three hours to build up a head of steam this morning,” Pat replied. “But it was still a little warm from yesterday.”

How does one become a steam locomotive engineer, which is probably one of the rarest and coolest jobs in the world?

“Bill Nolan, who had been the head engineer at Prairie Village for many years, trained me," Pat explained. "He spent about 200 hours showing me such things as how much water to add to the boiler and when to shovel coal. I also attended a boiler school in Rollag, Minnesota where I took a test and obtained a hobby boiler engineer’s license.”

This machine looks old. When was it built?

“No. 29 was built at the Lima Locomotive Works in January of 1944," Pat told me. "The U.S. Army ordered it and planned to use it as a switcher engine to move war materiel around rail yards. But WW II ended before the Army could put it into service. No. 29 was eventually purchased by the Duluth & Northeastern Railroad and was used to haul timber. It was soon replaced by diesel locomotives, which are cheaper and easier to operate.”

How much does this bad boy weigh?

“No. 29 tips the scales at 80 tons," Pat says. "It’s a 0-6-0 locomotive, so all of that weight is balanced on three wheels on each side that take up just nine linear feet of track. It’s the only operating coal-fired locomotive in the state of South Dakota.”

Does a steam locomotive require much upkeep?

“It certainly does," he says. "We’ve had to rework the firebox and recently had the boiler re-flued. We’ve also done a lot of work on the two miles of track that loop around Prairie Village.”

I’ve heard that each locomotive has its own personality.

“Absolutely. No. 29 is a living, breathing thing," Pat says. "You can see it, feel it, hear it. There are little puffs of steam that are unique to every steam engine. And you can’t just leave it idling during the day like a diesel locomotive. Somebody has to stay with it and tend it.”

Being the engineer of a steam locomotive is every little boy’s dream, but it looks like a hot, dirty, smelly job. Do you enjoy it?

“I call it the Pat and LeRay show whenever we take the locomotive out. I start each run by giving a couple of toots on the whistle and operating the bell, which are the classic sounds of a steam train," Pat says. "As we begin to make our way around the track, people will honk at us from the nearby highway and stop to take photos. The part that’s the most fun is when we go up the hill and the locomotive makes that distinctive chuff-chuff sound. The smiles that we see on the faces of people – especially the children – makes it all worthwhile.”

About the Author

Jerry Nelson
 Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. Daily life on that farm provided fodder for a long-running weekly newspaper column, “Dear County Agent Guy,” which become a book of the same name. Dear County Agent Guy is available at

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