Interview with Riverside & Great Northern Railway members Bernie Hotzel and Steve Bradley

Getting to spend a morning going behind-the-scenes of such a unique place like the Riverside and Great Northern Railway is something I'll always remember. This learning experience was greatly enhanced by the preservation society member Bernie Hotzel and Steve Bradley, who kindly took the time to answer some of my many questions.

Interview with Bernie Hotzel

So Bernie, what do you do her at Riverside and Great Northern Railway?

I’m a Sr. steam engineer.

How long have you been working here for?

Ten to twelve years.

Now, who owns the railway?

Riverside and Great Northern Preservation Society – it’s a non-profit corporation with a little under 300 members.

Do you know how long it’s been here?

Well that’s a long story…

Well I’m all ears! You can give me a condensed version if you want . . .

The whole thing started in Janesville in 1946, 1947, when Elmer and Norman Sandley set up a railroad in Riverside Park – Riverside & Great Northern Railway. By the early 50’s the city of Janesville decided they didn’t fit in the park and more or less ran them off – so they found this abandoned right-of-way that the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad had built in 1855 and was used by them until they built the current line in 1903. The Sandleys’ moved up here sometime in 1953.

To the Dells?

To the Dells, and they began building locomotives, cars, & parts. But people kept bothering them for train rides so . . .

So this wasn’t intended for an amusement ride.

No, this was built as a demonstration railroad for their product. They didn’t intend to involve the public, but people kept pestering – and they wouldn’t turn down their quarter – so they started giving rides. That lasted till about 1980 when a combination of health and finances put them out of business.

Is that when you guys stepped in?

The bank was getting ready to sell the whole thing off when a group of enthusiasts banded together and established the preservation society and took over the property…and the mortgage which we’re still working on!

So you have to pay the mortgage by selling rides & donations?

Yes, whatever donations we receive. We’re always looking for donations.

Speaking of rides, how many trains do you have?

We have three operating steam locomotives – pulling 4 to 5 cars.

How many people can one of the trains pull?

About forty to forty-five.

So I have to ask, do you have train sets at home?

No, because I never have time to work on them - I’ve built nine of the cars here!

Well, I know you got a train to drive - so thanks for answering my questions!

Interview with Steve Bradley

How long have you been working here Steve?

About 5 years now.

What do you do here at Riverside and Great Northern Railway?

Well, I’m on the board of directors. I’m in charge of safety and I help the track crew. I’m an engineer, I’m a conductor – a little bit of everything I guess.

What’s your favorite part about working here?

Oh engineering of course!

So how did you get into the whole “working on the railroad” ?

I just sort of fell into it. I’ve always had a little fascination with trains– like most boys, but I never thought I’d be able to drive one!

How long did you have to train until you were able to?

Steam engines take about a month of weekends. Running the diesel train only takes just about a weekend to learn – it’s easier to drive then your car!

So if I understand the process correctly for the steam engine, in a nutshell, you heat up coal, which in turn produces steam, which is used to propel the train. How much water does a train use?

It holds a hundred gallons of water, and we use about thirty or forty gallons every trip.

And how hot does the coal get?

A couple thousand degrees probably – at least a thousand anyway.

Have you ever run out of water when you were out there?

Well, we had somebody run low on water once. There’s a fusible plug in there, so if you run out of water the fuse burns out and throws all the steam down on your fire. Knocks your fire out – but it takes a long time to replace that if you do!

Tell me a little about the property. Did you guys do a lot to the place once you took over?

All the buildings here were built by the Sandleys’. They were trying to re-create the 1800’s steam era in miniature, and they did a pretty good job with towers – we got a journey shop, a car shop, a locomotive shop, a boiler shop - we got three turntables . . .


They're a turn-around track – so when a train pulls up to the station going in the other direction, we spin them around so it’s facing the right way. When we get to Western Springs we do the same thing down there.

How do they turn?

By hand.

How many people does it take to turn one?

This one here takes just one. The other table isn’t quite as good – sometimes it takes two.

Can I turn one?

Yeah, we’ll let you turn a little over 6 thousand pounds . . .

I’m up for the challenge – I might have to do some push-ups first! So how long does the ride take?

Oh about 30 minutes to run through it. It’s three miles all together. It goes about 10 miles-per-hour. We can actually run three trains at a time - there is a passing - and then there is another one over at Western Springs. So we can run three trains if we need to.

Why do they call them 15 gauge?

Its fifteen inches from inside a rail to inside a rail. Sandley made three different gauges, but the fifteen was his most popular.

What’s the significance of the steam whistle? Is it just for effect?

Every whistle you hear has a meaning – two means it’s going forward, three it’s backing-up. A single one while you're moving means you’re doing a brake-test, if you're stopped and there is a single one, that means the train is stopped and it won’t move again.

What about multiple ones while the train is moving?

Mainly for effect, but we also have a lot of deer out here – you’ll see where there is a deer trail and they’ll walk out in front of us if we’re not careful.

What is the humming noise?

That humming noise you here coming from the engine. That’s called drumming. What’s happening is that we got the hottest fire you can get, and the fire is going through the tubes – and that makes the tubes vibrate.

The Riverside and Great Northern Preservation sounds like it really is doing great things to preserve history for years to come. Any specific plans for the future?

Well, we figure it’s going to cost between eighty to ninety thousand dollars to restore the 128 (one of the original Sandley engines). It’s not running right now – the guy that owned it last took a curb too fat & flipped it over – so there is a lot of damage along the side. But it was donated back to us.

We’re constantly looking for other Sandley engines that survived – there aren’t too many. There is a couple more down in Florida. I saw on an internet picture sitting in a junk yard rusting. I’m trying to figure out where this guy is, but I can’t even find the picture anymore – it’s a shame.

Well good luck tracking them all down, and thank you for showing me around place as well as answering all my questions - I had a blast!