Milwaukee Road No. 261 sees firebox work

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Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 heads west on the Minnesota Prairie Line on Sept. 8, 2018. The 4-8-4 is receiving firebox work before excursions this June on Minnesota Prairie Line and sister railroad Twin Cities & Western.
Steve Glischinski
MINNEAPOLIS – Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 is undergoing significant firebox work before the 2019 operating season. The locomotive, owned by the nonprofit Friends of the 261, will see replacement of one of its water circulators, sometimes called “arch tubes,” according to Friends President and Chief Operating Officer Steve Sandberg.

No. 261 was constructed by American Locomotive Co. in 1944 with the most modern technology for thermodynamic water circulation. The American Circulator Co. touted that the 5-inch diameter pipes were the most efficient way of circulating water from the lower part of the firebox foundation ring, around the firebox and over the crown sheet. To create maximum horsepower in modern steam locomotives the locomotive needs to be able to boil water quickly and efficiently. It is estimated that at maximum power No. 261 can evaporate as much as 10,000 gallons of water per hour, according to Sandberg.

As part of the yearly federal inspection of No. 261, the Friends are required to ultrasonically test these pipes to verify the thickness of the metal and make sure they are suitable for No. 261’s boiler pressure. The original requirement for the thickness of the pipes steel was 3/8-inch. Over the years of 261’s excursion career, the front arch tube closest to the fire developed small thin areas where the arch brick rubbed the metal. The Friends have been monitoring the situation and decided now is the time for replacement.

Replacement requires a complex repair. After removing the old pipes, engineering drawings were made to replicate the old pipe and make new ones. Then the organization had to locate proper American Society of Mechanical Engineers code-certified metal tubes/pipes. These pipes then have to be custom bent. The Friends uses Bend Tech based in Duluth, Minn., a company that specializes in bending pipes for oil refineries and power plants.

The new pipes are now on hand and work is moving forward to fit the new pipes, according to Sandberg. Once all the pipes are fit into 261, Moorhead Boiler and Machine Company will send in a certified welder to complete the installation. After the welding is complete a third-party inspection company, Radiograph, is brought in to inspect the welds and make sure the work is up to code.

“To date we are about 50 percent done with the work we have planned this spring,” Sandberg says. “You can’t really rush this type of work. It takes lots of time for each step of the process to evolve and you can’t rush safety.” Sandberg said the Friends have brought in extra help to assist, including longtime 261 crew member Jeff Miller of Pittsburgh. Miller was part of the original crew that rebuilt the engine in the early 1990s and has many years of experience with specialty boiler work.

Work is expected to wrap up at the end of May ahead of 261’s scheduled trips over the Twin Cities & Western and Minnesota Prairie Line June 22-23.

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