Historian tells tale of Zephyr that ran through FM

Historian Robert Tabern shows memorabilia from the Mark Twain Zephyr that used to make stops in Fort Madison in the first half of the 20th century. Tabern gave a presentation on the rehabilitation of the five-car train Monday in Fort Madison. Photo by Elizabeth Meyers for Pen City Current.

Special to Pen City Current

FORT MADISON — Library Director Sarah Clendineng put it best when she said, “Fort Madison is a great place to live if you like trains.”

Not a day goes by without trains passing through the riverfront in this Mississippi River town.

It was no surprise, then, that more than two dozen people on Monday attended a presentation at Fort Madison Public Library about the historic Mark Twain Zephyr.

Robert Tabern, director of passenger development for the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad, educated locals on the history of the Mark Twain Zephyr — which at one time made stops in Fort Madison, Wever, Montrose, and Keokuk in Lee County — and the $4 million renovation currently underway.

Tabern’s presentation in Fort Madison was one of 14 he is making along the train’s original route in Galesburg, Illinois, Southeast Iowa, and Missouri.

His stop in Fort Madison included a one-hour PowerPoint presentation, small memorabilia display and a book signing. Tabern and his wife, Kandace Tabern, authored the three-volume book series “Mark Twain Zephyr: History, Restoration & Re-birth.”

Described as “one of the Burlington’s (Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad) premier trains,” the Mark Twain Zephyr began carrying passengers and cargo on Oct. 25, 1935 and did so until 1958. The train’s route changed several times during its 23 years in service and passed through Fort Madison off and on for about 12 years.

Family-owned Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad, located in Trego, Wisconsin, purchased the Mark Twain Zephyr in 2020 and is in the process of renovating the five-car train for recreational use. Beginning in the spring of 2022, passengers can take a ride on the historic train and enjoy dining and a museum aboard.

“This is just the beginning of a new life for a train that passed through your town and is a big part of your Fort Madison history,” said Tabern.

When the Mark Twain Zephyr ceased operations in 1958, it spent about two years at the CB&Q railroad shops in West Burlington before passing through numerous individual owners, including Iowans Charles “Frank” Dashner of Glenwood and Ernie A. Hayes of Mount Pleasant. The train sat on the grounds of the Midwest Old Settlers & Threshers Association from 1962-1979 where it fell into disrepair.

One of the train’s distinguishing features, a large medallion displaying the bust of Mark Twain and a copy of his signature, was taken off the train during its years in West Burlington. The CB&Q worker who took the medallion was identified and it was given to Hayes, the Mount Pleasant businessman.

When Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad purchased the train last year, Tabern noticed the medallion missing and began trying to track it down. Eventually he traced its whereabouts to the home of a Hayes relative in Texas. The medallion is now under the care of Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad and will be displayed at the train depot in Trego.

“That’s what I like telling in the books and the stories, is not just the history of the train, because anybody can tell that,” Tabern said. “I like delving deep and finding some of the family stories. It’s the personal stories that I enjoy telling.”

To follow the Mark Twain Zephyr’s restoration journey, visit marktwainzephyr.com or the Mark Twain Zephyr page on Facebook.

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