Meet Our Volunteer and Diesel Locomotive Foreman Phil

We asked Phil, why do you volunteer with the Museum? Here is his story in his words. 
My connection with railroading extends back as far as I can remember. My maternal grandfather worked for Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and then Burlington Northern in St. Paul, MN, and my paternal great grandfather, who I am named after, worked for Great Northern in Superior, WI. While growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in Superior, WI, Wadena, MN, and Hudson, WI, trains were always a nearby presence, from hearing the distant crashing of cars being switched in Stinson Ave yard in Superior, to feeling the blast of wind as a fast freight flew by at 60mph in Wadena, MN. My earliest memory of a train ride is when my mother and I took the former Amtrak North Star from Superior to visit my grandparents in St. Paul. This experience, and others, helped cultivate a fascination with trains and technology that ended up shaping my life.

Growing up, my parents or grandparents would occasionally show up with various train sets in various scales, including an old three-rail Marx tinplate set from an antique store, which would chuff and smoke around the Christmas tree, with a big old humming transformer that would warm up and smell of hot varnish and ozone. My brother and I would build bridges, buildings, signals, and other accessories to go with the train sets, and we eventually moved up to a decent sized HO scale layout in the basement. I got pretty good at recognizing wrapped Athearn and other model train boxes under the Christmas tree by their weight and size.

I first became aware of MTM in the spring of 1995 at 15 years old, when my grandfather and I were returning from a train show at Bandana Square, where I had picked up a couple locomotive manuals and maybe an old timetable or two. My grandfather passed over the Jackson St. bridge just west of the roundhouse nearly every day of his working career as he would drive to the BN headquarters building, and he’d noticed that in the last few years there was something going on at the old Jackson St. roundhouse, but he didn’t know what. We decided to investigate. As it turned out, we showed up on a Saturday afternoon, which was and still is the main MTM work session day. We soon discovered a number of volunteers preparing the locomotives and cars for the coming season operating the Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway. One of the volunteers was kind enough to show us around, and we got to tour a couple passenger cars, see the work in progress, and also tour one of the locomotives being prepped for service. It was MTM’s NP 105, which at the time was the primary diesel power at Osceola. Learning that all of this was volunteer-run, and that I could become a member and help too, instantly set the hook and I left with a membership application.
As they say, the rest is history. My extremely patient and supportive mother would give me a ride to the roundhouse on Thursday evenings and Saturdays until I was old enough to drive myself, and I quickly realized that working on the diesels was my favorite thing, even though the work was heavy, dirty, and above all, messy. It’s hard to identify exactly what makes someone want to do hard, dirty work as a hobby, especially when battling with old, obsolete equipment that by any commercial economic standards should have been sent to the scrapyard decades ago, but seeing the results of our efforts – that first puff of smoke as the cylinders in that old, cold engine started firing in the spring, or experiencing the roar as it clawed uphill out of the valley with the full fleet of passenger cars in tow, all loaded to capacity for fall colors viewing – somehow made it all worthwhile.

Over the years, I’ve participated in a number of roles and projects within MTM – train crew, first-class car attendant, diesel mechanic, electrician, passenger car mechanic, track maintenance, committee member, and board member. All of these experiences have taught me just how challenging it is to run a railroad, much less one that uses old historic equipment, and has given me a great appreciation for what
it takes to make it all work. When you ask someone “what makes the train go?”, the first response is frequently “coal”, “diesel”, or “electricity”. But the real answer is people, and money. The connections I built with the people of MTM would also end up providing me an opening to my first job in the railroad industry as an entry-level drafter for a railroad signal systems design contractor. By coincidence, it also brought me an opportunity to change jobs and hop aboard a startup Light Rail Transit project in Minneapolis known as the Hiawatha LRT line. Today, I am the Senior Signal Engineer in the Rail Systems Maintenance department at Metro Transit, responsible for signals design guidance, project management, and technical support for the growing LRT system.

Mine is but one story of a kid who liked trains, who stumbled into an opportunity he’d never dreamed of which became a hobby and eventually a career. People volunteer at MTM for a variety of reasons, but I think those who end up being most passionate about MTM do it because they enjoy seeing their efforts make a difference. In an age when so many people feel like cogs in a machine, or that they don’t have a voice, or ability to make an impact in the world, MTM provides opportunities to make a difference. If they hadn’t helped fix the locomotive, or the track, or run the train, it wouldn’t have run, and the families and kids wouldn’t have been able to experience a small taste of a past era of transportation and gone home with smiles on their faces, dust in their hair, and memories which will last a lifetime. At the end of the day, it’s the feeling of “I helped make that happen” while seeing the results of a job done well and safely, that keeps many of us coming back. And you never know – the next kid who likes trains, whose family brings him or her to the roundhouse, or on a St. Croix Valley train ride, could end up being a future volunteer, or the next James J Hill.

See You There :)