BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Rail has always been a source of history, pride, and tradition in Fort Madison.
Those local enthusiasts are in for a treat on July 19th from a historian who’s part of a family-owned company out of Wisconsin currently refurbishing the Mark Twain Zephyr train that used to run daily between St. Louis and Burlington from 1934 until 1958.
The new stainless steel train ran along the old CB&Q rail line and would run trips out of St. Louis in the morning to Burlington carrying mail, produce, packages and passengers, and then would return to the city after making stops in Fort Madison along the way.
On July 19 at 11 a.m., Robert Tabern, the Director of Passenger Development for the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad, will be giving a presentation at the Fort Madison Public Library about the history of the railroad and the current restoration project.
Tabern and his wife, both historians, have written two books on the train and will have copies of those on sale at the presentation as well. The first book looks at the origin of the Zephyr and its creation, while the second looks at its life in service up until it was sold in 1958. A third, final novel, is in the works outlining the rehabilitation.
Tabern said the Zephyr was a product of ingenuity when passenger rail lines started to compete with air travel and were looking for something a little lighter and faster.
“They started doing these lighter weight trains and that’s where the Zephyrs came into play on the CB&Q,” Tabern said. “There were three before the Mark Twain that started in 1935.”
Tabern said the Zephyr would hold up to 92 people in two passenger cars, but another car could carry live chickens and produce that could be sold on the streets of St. Louis the next morning. Fort Madison would typically get stops in the early afternoon on the way north and then in the early afternoon on the way back south.
He’s also looking for anyone along the Zephyr’s stops that has memories of the train. A documentary crew would be available to interview anyone who is interested in being a part of the project and Taber said, “isn’t too camera shy.”
In 1958, the train was taken out of service, sold and stored in Mt. Pleasant. It was then relocated to Kansas City, Chicago, and then St. Louis. The last 62 years it’s had seven private owners, all with different ideas.
‘The first owner wanted to refurbish it and sell it Cuba,” Tabern said. “This guy actually spoke to Fidel Castro himself, but the Cuban Missile Crisis got in the way.”
The second owner wanted to clean up the train and use it as a tourist attraction to try and get people to stop in Mt. Pleasant and it sat there for about 17 years, according to Tabern’s research.
“The most recent owners had it for like 30 years as a hobby piece and really didn’t have the time or money to help with the thing. They sold it to us in 2020.”
Now four of the Zephyrs five train cars are at the tourist railroad’s facility being brought back to life. Another fifth car is from the Pioneer Zephyr that ran through Galesburg and parts of Iowa. Three of that train’s other cars are in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
He said owners of the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad looked at the shell of a train different times when they were at the St. Louis rail yard.
“He’d always seen this shell of a train and every time he would look at that sad train and always say, ‘maybe some day’,” Tabern said. “We finally got it, shipped it up here on the highway and have spent the last 10 months on it.”
He said COVID has created some supply issues and the timeline for rehabbing the train is now looking more like a 2022 finish date. But at that point, tours would begin that could range from 45 minutes to even several hours.
“We’re still trying to determine what those will look like, but they would take place on the historical lines in Wisconsin and could include a dinner tour or cocktail-and-appetizer shorter tours.”
Tabern said it would be wonderful if BNSF, which he said is open to helping tell the history of rail commerce in America, would at some point work out a way to let the Zephyr tour at different times along the original route from Burlington to St. Louis.
“We would love to be able to do that and bring that back to Fort Madison. 2024 would be the 90th anniversary of the train and 2034 would be the 100th anniversary. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take that train down that line to celebrate those events.”
The ownership has 26 miles of track from Spooner to Hayward in northwestern Wisconsin. They’ve been running tours and Bed and Breakfast trains for 24 years.
“When they started out they had nothing and they would collect money for a train ride. While they were on the train, the wife would go to buy diesel fuel for the next ride. That’s how bare bones it was, now it’s a multi-million dollar company.”
Tabern said Hannibal and Quincy had both looked at purchasing and refurbishing the Zephyr, but it never materialized. He said the train set was valued at between $4 million and $6 million in the 80’s if it were restored to its working condition.
Tabern’s books are available at www.mtzstore.com. He’s also looking for memorabilia from the train’s heyday and is wanting to talk with anyone that may have ticket stubs or other artifacts from the train.
He can be reached by email at email@example.com