Remembering those colorful engines with stripes

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 29, 2003

For nearly three decades some of the most unusual looking train locomotives to stop at an Albert Lea depot were on the Minneapolis and St. Louis (M.&St.L;) Railroad tracks.

Instead of the traditional &uot;cow catcher,&uot; these locomotives had rather blunt fronts. They also didn’t have the smoke stacks or large drive wheels and looked more like ordinary passenger coaches. And what made these locomotives really stand out were their colorful designs. The black color usually associated with most locomotives had been replaced with stripes.

Maybe the stripes were intended to resemble those on zebras. Then again, maybe those could have been tiger stripes. This could have had special significance for one of the M.&St.L.; locomotives pulling baggage and passenger coaches through Albert Lea. And what would have been really special for one particular locomotive would have been cherry and blue stripes to salute Albert Lea High School.

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The M.&St.L.; had 13 of these special locomotives to be used for passenger trains. All except one had the designation of GE on the front (the 13th had the initials of FW). However, the GE initials did not represent the name of General Electric. They actually defined the locomotives as being &uot;gas electric&uot; powered. All the GE units on the M.&St.L.; Railroad had been made by the Electromotive Corporation in the early 1930s.

Each gas electric locomotive weighed about 145,000 pounds and was powered by an eight-cylinder engine which actually used diesel for fuel. Horsepower ranged from 300 to 400.

The M.&St.L.; gave names to most of these special locomotives. Those names were mostly for cities served by the railroad. They were: Peoria, New Ulm, Oskaloosa, Ft. Dodge, Des Moines, Watertown (S.D.) and Montgomery, plus Hawkeye and Gopher. Three of the GE locomotives were reportedly never named. And GE-25 was designated as the Albert Lea unit.

These locomotives operated in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and Illinois, pulling the M.&St.L.; passenger trains from station to station.

In that era passenger trains also carried baggage and had what were designated as Railway Post Offices. These special compartments or coaches had personnel who handled the mail going to or from each community on the line and did preliminary sorting while the train was moving.

Albert Lea was an important location for the M.&St.L.; This was partly due to the large switching railyard and the roundhouse for locomotive maintenance. Also, the railroad’s main line from the Twin Cities ran through Jordan, New Prague, Montgomery, Waseca and New Richland, then divided at Albert Lea.

One route ran southwest through Twin Lakes, Emmons, Lake Mills, Forest City, Humboldt, Ft. Dodge, Des Moines and on to Albia, Iowa,

The main line went south to Glenville, Northwood, Manly, Mason City, Hampton, Marshalltown, Oskaloosa, then east to Peoria, Ill. A branch line ran from Oskaloosa to Albia.

The community of Albia is located about 30 miles north of the Missouri line in Monroe County and 21 miles west of Ottumwa, Iowa. Albia was a significant factor in the operation of the M.&St.L.; Railroad for two reasons, First, it was an important junction where connections could be made with other lines. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad was the connection for east-west travel and freight shipments, and the Wabash Railroad was available for destinations to the south. Also, Albia was the southernmost depot on the M.&St.L.; and the closest this railroad ever came to St. Louis, despite the corporate name.

After World War II the passenger business for the nation’s railroads started to gradually decline as highways improved and travel by air became more popular. In an effort to maintain the passenger part of the business, the M.&St.L.; devised something called the &uot;motor train.&uot; Several of the GE units were converted into a single car containing the engine and engineer’s area, mail and baggage compartments, and room to the rear for 18 passengers. What looked like a long trolley ran from Albert Lea to Albia for a few months in 1956 and ’57.

The M.&St.L.; ceased operations of all its passenger trains in 1957. In November 1960, this pioneer line which helped link Albert Lea by rail with the rest of the state and nation became a part of the Chicago and North Western Railroad.

Just what happened to the unique locomotives with the tiger or zebra stripes is now unknown, except for one unit. GE-25, the diesel electric unit with the Albert Lea name, was converted into a weed sprayer, according to the July 1957 issue of The Express, an employee publication of the M.&St.L.;