The famous phrase “I-Think-I-Can-I-Think-I-Can” was one that went through my head many nights as a child while drifting off to sleep after my mother read me the classic tale The Little Engine That Could. While I most likely haven’t thought of that saying in over of thirty years, it was the first thing that popped into my head the morning I recently went behind-the-scenes of the Riverside and Great Northern Railway for my latest Dells Bucket List adventure.
The Riverside and Great Northern Railway is a 15-inch gauge railroad “living museum” that operates on thirty-six acres about one mile north of the Dells, west of the Wisconsin River. It’s where the young and old can experience the aromas, sights, and sounds of the industrial age while riding on steam trains along a scenic roadbed through canyons, woods, as well as overlooking the river.

My day began when I met up with Senior Steam Engineer Bernie Hotzel, who was getting one of the trains ready for its first trip of the day. He explained to me the history of how the father and son team of the late Edward & Norman Sandley ended up in the Dells building their locomotives, cars, and parts back in the early 50’s, and how public demand led to them giving rides on their demonstration track. After a combination of health and finances put them out of business in the early eighties, Bernie explained that in 1988 a group of enthusiasts banded together to form the Riverside and Great Northern Preservation Society, which took over the property and operation by offering rides and through donations.

With the sounds of the American folk song "I've Been Working on the Railroad" playing in the background, I was inspired to ask Bernie if I could help him get the train ready. Stating he needed to go load some more coal, I watched as he pulled the chain of the steam whistle twice, indicating that the train was about to move forward. Seeing steam shoot up into the air, and hearing the classic “choo choo” sound, I excitedly asked if I could give it a try. Seeing my childlike reaction, he agreed to let me do it on the way back. I have to admit, getting the opportunity to make the whistle blow three times, signifying that the train was about to go in reverse, was absolutely a childhood dream come true.

I was next introduced to Steve Bradley, who is on the board of directors and in charge of safety. He gave me a tour of the property, showing me the many buildings filled with fascinating equipment and memorabilia. When I mentioned that I’d been living in the Dells since February and wasn’t even aware of the railway until my Uncle Clem, a longtime Baraboo resident, told me about it awhile back, Steve said: “We’re known as the best kept secret in the Dells – but were trying to change that!”

Seeing the train pull up next to a big wooden water tank, Steve and I wandered over to help fill up its boiler. While I worked the water spout over the boiler’s opening, he explained that it’s about a two hour process to get a steam engine up and running from a dead cold: “The boiler holds about fifty gallons of water, so it takes a while to get that to a boil.”

Happy to have another hands-on experience of what it’s like to be “working on the railroad,” I asked Steve if there was anything else I could do. “Well, we have three turntables…we’ll let you turn a little over six thousand pounds!” This definitely got my attention, as he went on to explain that turntables are hand-operated turnaround tracks where an engine will pull in, and then be spun around so that the train is facing in the opposite direction. While fun to do, it turns out this process isn’t that hard to accomplish, albeit it does sound impressive to say you moved that much weight all by yourself.

My day at the railway ended with the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of my “labor” with a picturesque trip riding on the steam train. This was where the excitement on all the kid’s faces when our conductor Dan bellowed: “All aboard!” – was matched equally by my own.

The Riverside and Great Northern Railway starts running the approximately thirty-minute, three mile round-trip train rides beginning weekends in early April. They run daily Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day, and then back to weekend’s weather permitting until early December. It is a great place to have a picnic with the family, take tours of the old Sandley Light Railway Manufacturing Company buildings, as well as view various educational exhibits in the learning center and museum store.

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- Chris Dearman

*** I'd like to thank everyone at the Riverside and Great Northern Preservation Society - especially Bernie Hotzel, Steve Bradley, Gary Gleason, Jim Hagen and Conductor Dan for spending time teaching me what's it like to be "working on the railroad". I'd also like to give a big shout-out to Jason Okansen for taking some photos - even while humbling around with a broken leg!