News & Reviews News Wire Silvis shop welcomes younger generations

Silvis shop welcomes younger generations

By Steve Glischinski | January 23, 2024

Many workers, volunteers under 30 years old

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man with hard hat working
Aspen Welker, age 19, cuts staybolt caps on UP Challenger No. 3985 at Silvis on Jan. 19, 2024. Steve Glischinski

SILVIS, Ill. — The stereotype of a worker or volunteer restoring a steam locomotive today is a group of grizzled mechanics of retirement age who recalled steam in their youth, and now want to get their favorite machines back on the road. But that stereotype is crashing down at the Silvis shop of Railroading Heritage of Midwest America, where the group is rebuilding Union Pacific 2-10-2 No. 5511 and 4-6-6-4 “Challenger” No. 3985 for service. There a group of employees and volunteers are hard at work, and at least six of them are under 30 — and some are as young as 18.

This “youth movement” is born out of both circumstance and necessity. RRHMA has managed to attract young people who grew up with trains — many trace that interest back to the Thomas the Tank Engine television series — and the fact that many of those grizzled mechanics have been swept up in other steam projects and are unavailable.

Case in point is RRHMA’s newest employee, Aspen Welker, an outgoing 19-year-old with an infectious enthusiasm for steam. Welker began volunteering at his hometown heritage railroad, the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern in Jackson, Mo., when he was 5 years old. His previous experience had been working with diesel locomotives, but in July 2023 he visited Little America amusement park in Marshall, Wis., where the Whiskey River Railway live steam railroad operates.

He spent a few days with their mechanics, then on his trip back home, Welker stopped in Silvis for a volunteer weekend with RRHMA Shop Superintendent Alex Beams. Beams had worked several years at Whiskey River and encouraged Welker to volunteer at Silvis.

Welker began making weekend trips to the facility and later became a full-time volunteer. He also travels around the area visiting steam operations to further his “steam knowledge” as much as possible. This month he was hired on as a full-time employee.

Part of RRHMA’s mission, according to President and Chief Operating Officer Steve Sandberg, is to entice younger generations. “When I began the restoration work on Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261, I was 25 years old,” Sandberg says. “Now I’m 58. We need to bring younger people in to carry on and learn about steam like I did when I was younger.”

Another way young people and other volunteers can learn is by actually working on a live steam locomotive, but with No. 261 located in Minneapolis with limited opportunities to run, Sandberg says RRHMA is actively pursuing the acquisition of a smaller steam locomotive that can operate on the grounds at Silvis and serve as a teaching tool. It has the additional benefit of allowing the group to offer short rides to visitors as the shop eventually transitions from steam restorations to more of a museum focus.

RRHMA is making significant progress in the restoration of both steam locomotives. No. 3985 has been significantly torn down, and Beams says they hope to lift the locomotive and remove the front engine wheelset in March. Surprisingly, Beams says, No. 5511, which hasn’t turned a wheel since the mid-1950s, is in much better shape than No. 3985 — a well worn locomotive from its years of operation.

“When we removed the cab you would not believe what we found under the floor,” Beems says. They discovered decades of soot of course, but even an old railroad tie was found along with other waste. The bottom sheets of the cab had rotted away so new sides will have to be fabricated. A new cab floor is being fabricated by the Crawford Company in nearby Rock Island, Ill. The rear flue sheet will soon be removed and a newly built sheet installed to replace it.

While most of the effort is on 3985, No. 5511 is also undergoing work. It has been partially torn down, new staybolt material has been purchased, and staybolt fabrication will soon begin for the 2-10-2 and the Challenger. New flues for 5511 and 3985 have arrived at the shop. Sandberg made a group order that included flues for several other steam operations when he ordered them from a company in Germany — this included the Union Pacific steam restoration, UP 0-6-0 No. 4420, being rebuilt at the ex-UP roundhouse in Evanston, Wyo.

Other work at the shop includes rebuilding the tender from UP Big Boy No. 4014, which is being converted to burn oil. A new oil bunker is being fabricated by a company in St. Louis, and the tender has been sandblasted and primered. Work on the brake rigging and wheels is upcoming. The tender — originally from Big Boy 4015 but swapped when the engines were in regular service (then a common practice) — will be returned to UP when complete, probably next year. No. 3985’s tender, now behind No. 4014, will then be moved to Silvis.

Diesels also will be getting work. National Railway Equipment will install new springs in the trucks of DDA40X No. 6936, which is now fully operational. BNSF B40-8W No. 537 will be entering the sandblast booth at Silvis soon in preparation for application of its original Santa Fe red and silver “Warbonnet” colors.

Under contract RRHMA is also repainting former Kansas City Southern business cars for CPKC. The cars are repainted from their original KCS passenger colors to CP maroon, but retaining Kansas City Southern lettering. Recently completed was KCS diner Jackson.

For more information go to

several men on stairs in shop
Six of RRHMA’s employees and volunteers pose in front of UP 3985 and 5511 at Silvis. No one in this photo is more than 30 years old. Steve Glischinski.

5 thoughts on “Silvis shop welcomes younger generations

  1. This is a very poitive and encouraging sign as well as hope for the future of rail preservation and museums as well as the railroad and rail tourism and excursion industry. If this industry and hobby is to survive for years to come and for future generations to enjoy, we need to get the younger generation into restoring and operating these historic pieces of equipment. Us older folks are not getting youngetr and as we age and both our health and strength give out, we need a fresh young perspective on this hobby and for the next generations of young folks to carry the torch forward. Their energy, enthusiam and strength as well as new ideas will propel the railroads of the future into a bright new world. And YES, ther are young people out there who love trains and have a pasion and interest in preserving old equipment and getting locomotives into operating condition and keeping interest alive. Us older railfans must not turn away the young folks but encourage them and train them in the skills and knowledge and mechanical know how in getting these old warriors of the rails up and running and preserving them for posterity and history. and not only the guys but the gals too There are many girls and women that love trains and welcome a chance to work on steam engines. This hobby and interest needs all and fresh new faces and ideas to keep the trains rolling for future generations
    Joseph C. Markfelder

  2. It is great to see young people getting involved. Anybody who remembers steam in revenue service on most railroads is well past 65 years old and anybody who worked on steam when it was king is either in their late 80s or has passed on.

  3. I am associated with three rail restoration groups on the peripherals. Two of the groups have actively recruited younger enthusiasts as well as some more seasoned citizen status. Soon those who actually witnessed steam operations, let alone actually worked, will be departing. I count myself as last to witness since I was a toddler when the last steam. I had some material that I have been forwarding onto younger fellows, I guess I was a caretaker for that material after all. Some of these youngsters are pretty good. Now, if life doesn’t sidetrack them too much.

  4. It is great to see so many dedicating themselves early in their careers. Unfortunately, I’m now well entrenched in the grey haired, post-retirement track for anything more than the odd weekend of volunteering at some place like Silvis.

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