Mid-Continent News

New Attention for Old Great Northern A-22. (9/20/04)

If Leah Rosenow were back in high school, her current assignment might be a composition entitled “How I spent my summer vacation.” Or more appropriately “How I became a leading authority on railroad history in just twelve short weeks.”

Rosenow, 24, a Milwaukee native and graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, became that leading authority after spending her summer researching the history of Great Northern Railway business car A-22. And instead of writing a composition for class, her assignment now is to conduct free tours through the car at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum at North Freedom, Wisconsin.

The A-22 will be on display during the museum’s Autumn Color weekends, October 1-3 and 8-10. And Leah will be there to showcase the car and share the information gained from her work.

The Great Northern Railway built the business car in 1905 for its president Louis Hill. “What makes the A-22 unique,” says museum curator Don Ginter, “is the fact that it was literally built with a garage on one end so that Hill could take his automobile with him when he traveled by rail.” Museum guests will be able to see the remnants of the automobile room and other design features of a railroad car that went from presidential suite to storage facility during the course of its life on the railroad.

The Great Northern Railway (GN) was the first railroad to build a transcontinental line across the northern U.S. The railroad's main line from the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul to Seattle served the northern plains agricultural regions and the lumber producing regions of the Pacific Northwest. Lines to Duluth, Minnesota also served the Missabe mining regions. GN was absorbed into the Burlington Northern in 1970.

Ginter is extremely pleased with the success of the research done this summer. “In just a matter of weeks Leah has compiled a wealth of information consisting of documents, drawings, and photos that exceeded expectations for what we thought could be accomplished in the amount of time budgeted for this project.”

But Leah is quick to add: “While the research has produced surprising details about the A-22, the most unexpected result has been my own developing infatuation with the project.” And this has been an infatuation that helped to propel her to seek out every detail possible about the car’s history.

Her search began with visits to the more obvious repositories, like the James J. Hill Reference Library, Minnesota State Historical Society, and the Great Northern Railway Historical Society archives, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. All housed a significant number of items, but the work there was just the beginning. Inquiries were made and collections sought throughout the country. The quest for A-22 information included the National Archives, Library of Congress, Smithsonian Library and Archives, Glacier National Park Archives, and the National Park Service Archives. The state historical societies of Wisconsin, Montana, Washington, Oregon, and California were all consulted, as well as several local historical societies.

“The most important resources however in the search for the A-22’s past were individual railfans, collectors, and historians whose knowledge and advice were priceless.” Leah found that people were surprisingly willing to share the pieces of information that they had found. It is due to her own investigative work, however, that all the parts were brought together to provide a single comprehensive picture of the car, its unique design, and use by Hill and the railroad.

For Leah the work continues. Besides conducting tours, she will also be photographing every aspect of the A-22 in detail. This is necessary to help document the car’s current condition with the ultimate goal of restoring it to an appearance that Louis Hill would recognize.

“The car was donated to us in 1972 and has received little attention since then,” admits Ginter. “But a gift from one of Hill’s grandsons has allowed us to do all the research that will help us formulate a restoration plan we will present to him later this year.” And Leah will be part of that planning team.

“Originally we were only interested in hiring a summer intern,” says Don Meyer, the museum’s manager. “But we were so impressed with Leah during the interview and subsequent meetings, that we decided to bring her on staff, even though that means having her part-time while we wait for her to complete her studies next year.”

Not bad for someone whose resume begins with the confession “Admittedly I am no railroad expert.” She is now. And museum guests can meet Leah and learn a little about something she knows intimately well when they take a tour of the business car during the museum’s Autumn Color weekends.

A-22 arriving at North Freedom, 9/72.