Frank W. Christopherson — railroader, legislator, museum volunteer — dies at 93

One of last surviving Great Northern steam engineers, Wisconsin native had 53-year rail career, also was a union official, newspaper publisher
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Frank Christopherson at the throttle of Erie Mining F9A No. 4211 during the Lake Superior Railroad Museum’s Railfan Weekend in 2011.
Dan Kwarciany

DULUTH, Minn. — It’s a cliché when a person passes away to say “they had a life well lived.” But the life of Frank W. Christopherson meets that definition. Christopherson, who died in Duluth on Dec. 15 at 93, was one of the last surviving engineers who ran steam locomotives on the Great Northern Railway. But that was only part of his life story. In addition to a 53-year railroad career that began with Great Northern and ended with BNSF Railway, Christopherson served two terms as a Wisconsin state assemblyman, then as a state senator, and for a time owned and operated newspapers in Bayfield and Iron River, Wis. He served six years as local chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers representing railroad workers based in Superior, Wis., and as a legislative representative for BLE.

Born in Superior in 1927, his railroad career began in 1943 during his sophomore year at Superior High School. He got a job working part time as a laborer in the GN Allouez roundhouse in Superior. When he turned 18 near the end of World War II, he served in the US Army Air Corps. While awaiting training at Lowry Field in Denver, he worked as a brakeman on the steam switch engine on the base. In 1946, he returned to Superior and embarked on his long railroad career. While he handled some passenger and switch runs, most of his career was running ore and taconite trains between the Allouez Docks in Superior and the Mesabi Iron Range. He served as a fireman or engineer on everything from GN N3 class 2-8-8-0s to BN SD60Ms. In 1995, for his outstanding community service and his excellence as a railroad employee, he was one of 25 employees awarded Burlington Northern’s “Chairman’s Award.”

Christopherson volunteered for many organizations, but the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth held a special place for him. After he retired, he came to the Museum to keep on railroading. He volunteered in the shop, served on the LSRM Board of Directors, and helped train volunteers to operate trains on the Museum’s North Shore Scenic Railroad. He often volunteered as an engineer for the Museum’s Railfan Weekend, and left many fans awestruck as he regaled them with stories of his long career.

Steam locomotives had a special hold on him. When the Museum was negotiating to bring Soo Line 4-6-2 No. 2719 to Duluth, Christopherson got wind of it and was soon in the office of the Museum’s Executive Director, Ken Buehler. Buehler recalls the meeting: “He came into my office one day and said, ‘You know I ran steam on the Great Northern after the War and right up to the end in the middle 50’s. Then when the Museum had Duluth & Northern Minnesota No. 14 [a 2-8-2] running, I ran that one too.’ He leaned forward on his chair and looked me cold straight in the eye. He raised his index finger and said with conviction, ‘One more time!’”

“Of course, there were many ‘one more time’ trips with Frank at the throttle of the No. 2719,” Buehler said. “He loved that engine. Most every time he tied up he’d say, ‘All she wants to do is run.’”

Christopherson was married for 69 years to his wife, Marilyn, who died last year. His family asked that memorials be made to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum Frank Christopherson Fund in honor of his many years of service and volunteerism, care of the North Shore Scenic Railroad, 506 West Michigan Street, Duluth, MN 55802. Funds will be applied to the restoration and renaming of a railcar in his honor.

In a 2011 interview for the Museum publication The Junction, Christopherson summed up his career: “I have had a very lucky life in many ways; one is working 53 years on the Great Northern and Burlington Northern/BNSF without ever having a personal injury or ever serving one day of disciplinary time off. Another was finding the North Shore Scenic Railroad to volunteer; being able to use my past experience and training. I hope I have given as much help to the North Shore Scenic Railroad as they have given to me.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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