The year is '99. The date, Oct. 25. The place - a railroad depot dead in the midst of grain country in east central North Dakota. A civil engineer stands along a shiny new stretch of railroad track. He can't help but admire the trackage, an end-of-the-line turn-around railroad loop. The only one like it in the country, even on the continent.
But the engineer has another reason to delight in this one-of-a-kind piece of work. It's his. He conceived it. He dreamed it. He designed it. And now he stands watching as a Northern Pacific passenger train huffs its way past him and past the depot, around the shiny mile of track. He feels a sense of accomplishment as it maneuvers the loop and clangs its way back; he dreams of growth and progress and a future for this place.
Ten years later, he sees the effects of his genius. The depot is still here, but there's much more. Seven grain elevators shipping enough flax to gain this prairie town the reputation of "flax capital of the world." Lumber yards and banks and businesses to take care of the 500 people who call this place 'home' - some of the same people who respected the civil engineer enough to fight for the right to name this place in honor of him, E.H. McHenry.
Let's make a deal
The year is '99. The date, Oct. 25. The place - a railroad depot dead in the midst of grain country in east central North Dakota. A slightly older-than-middle-aged woman takes advantage of milder-than-usual days to finish her fall cleaning. She has a snow plow, engine and caboose to clean. She has flowerbeds to retire and museum pieces to cover. Another summer has gone, and Avis Lowe can't believe it's been 20 years since she first began a crusade to save the McHenry Railroad Loop.
"We started working on this in 1979, realizing we were at risk to lose it," says Avis, referring to the Binford-to-McHenry section (including the Loop) of railroad branch line. "Burlington Northern, which bought the line from Northern Pacific in the early 1960s, was talking about abandoning the track and removing everything, including the Loop. We knew we had to do something."
The citizens of McHenry made a good decision when they drafted Avis to be their spokesperson at a Mandan meeting with Burlington Northern Railroad and the North Dakota Public Service Commission in 1981. With 65 hometown people there to cheer her on, Avis responded to Burlington's offer to sell them the track for $82,205. "We only have 82 people in the entire town, so $82,000 is ridiculous!" she retorted.
Burlington's next move was more to Avis' liking. "The president (of Burlington) offered to meet me for lunch, and of course I accepted," she says with a twinkle in her eye. "And then they offered to give us the Loop - but I told him, 'No, I couldn't do anything with just the Loop itself. I told him I'd need to have track extending at least to Main Street, and preferably to Highway 20."
Before the afternoon was over, Burlington had come to terms with Avis and the city of McHenry in the form of an agreement (or more accurately, a concession): The railroad agreed to give the city the Loop and trackage extending to Main Street.
Now, Avis - a farmer and mother of five grown children - was fired up. The city of McHenry found there was no stopping her, for the McHenry Loop deserved an engine. And a caboose.
And how about a snowplow - a 1937 Russell snowplow - just for a display? And, of course, a depot - an honest to gosh genuine Great Northern Depot, for a museum. But don't stop there: let's find a Speeder House complete with "hobo" carvings. And museum pieces - cream cans, railroad carts, work trailers and plenty of railroad memorabilia. Today, 20 years after she began her crusade to restore the McHenry Loop - Avis can rest assured her dream has indeed been realized. But now is no time to rest. For Avis the activist is now Avis the conductor.
It takes commitment
On the outskirts of town on a sleepy summer Sunday, a Whitcomb diesel engine whistles its greeting to the world. It's 1:30 p.m. in McHenry, and for the next two hours, the hamlet on Highway 20 north of Glenfield will come alive with visitors and train whistles. Today, and every first and third Sundays of June, July and August, and the first Sunday in September, the big Whitcomb engine pulls its charge 'round and 'round the historic and unique McHenry Loop.
Children of all ages, from one to 101, climb aboard the colorful relic of the past - a Northern Pacific caboose - to get a taste of trains. "Everyone, no matter what age, has a good time with us," says Avis. "Kids come and enjoy the ride. If they're under six, we'll even let them climb up in the engine and toot the whistle."
According to Avis, adults not only enjoy the ride, but they drink in the displays. "The museum and the snowplow are really what get people talking and reminiscing," she says. "They love to talk about their school days, and many remember riding the Loop. All of it just gets them going, and there's lots of stories to tell."
One of Avis' favorite stories concerns the massive snowplow gracing the depot yard. "A really good man in our community by the name of Robert Ramey found it in a junk pile in Jamestown, and he was so excited. He called and told me, 'Avis, you have to call a meeting! They told me we can have that thing for 10 cents a pound!' Well, we all thought that was a super idea, so we bought it for $825. But later we found the joke was on us, because we still had to get it home!"
The group finally resorted to hiring a professional mover to transport the snowplow from Jamestown to McHenry. "Once we got it home, we realized how much it needed to be sandblasted and refinished," says Avis. "And we still to this day haven't come up with the resources to do that. But we were delighted to find out that this snowplow, despite its need for a paint job, was our very own to begin with."
Avis goes on to explain that photos and news of a tragic train accident during a March 15, 1941, blizzard between McHenry and Binford include their 1937 Russell snowplow. "The snowplow had capsized when it hit a snow bank, causing the engines to buckle. We were just amazed to find that this snowplow that we had rescued from the junk pile is the very one that was used on our track years ago."
Committed community pitches in
The relics that make up McHenry's historic collection each come with a story all their own. Telling those stories, says Avis, is half the fun of operating the Loop and museum. "We have some marvelous historians within the community," she says. "John Aarestad is probably the most important to this project, for he donated many of the things in the museum. He is such a wonderful research man - he really is a historian."
But Avis says there are many other community residents who not only contribute to the history and research of the displays, but also participate in the operation of the train during the summer and maintenance of the grounds, equipment and museum all year around.
"Sometimes, you don't know what you asked for," she jokes as she describes the "chores" that she and other members of the McHenry Railroad Loop Association tend to. With help from the city of McHenry, they maintain the grounds and equipment. On Sundays when they fire up the engines to give rides, a core group operates the train. "We have to have at least four people in order to operate the train," she says. "A brakeman, engineer, conductor and someone to man the museum."
Avis, who enjoys her role as a conductor ("supposedly, nothing moves until the conductor says so"), admits that the commitment required from the association members can be burdensome. "We want to be accommodating to our passengers and at the same time we try not to tax the people who are operating the train, because they're all volunteers," she says. "We always tease that we are going to demand that our wages be doubled. In all seriousness, though, we like to keep on schedule, so two hours on every other Sunday is what we go by."
Avis and her group will, however, fire up the engines upon appointment. "For $25, we'll start the engines and give rides by special appointment anytime between late May and early September," she says. "But we emphasize that, other than our regular Sunday schedule, we operate by appointment only."
Sharing her dream
The year is 2000. The date, a sometime summer Sunday. The place - the conductor's seat on a Northern Pacific caboose positioned dead in the midst of grain country in east central North Dakota. A swarm of ticklish tourists gasp as a Whitcomb diesel engine's mighty whistle explodes the balmy summer sky.
A slightly older-than-middle-aged woman in a conductor's hat delights in the excitement that overwhelms the crowd. She smiles as children shout and adults reminisce about the days of yesteryear when a ride on the Loop was an everyday deal. She feels a sense of accomplishment as the Whitcomb maneuvers its way around the mile-long Loop and then clangs its way back. She has a reason to delight in this one-of-a-kind historic attraction. It's hers. She dreamed it. She fought for it. And she's thrilled to share it.
McHenry Railroad Loop Operated by the McHenry Railroad Loop Association McHenry, North Dakota
Rides available 1:30-3:30 p.m. First and third Sundays of June, July & August, and the first Sunday in September $1 per ride; donations accepted.
Special group tours by request. To make arrangements please phone Avis Lowe 701-785-2333