U.P. museum wins grant to restore rare, century-old steam locomotive

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A 150-year-old piece of Michigan’s industrial past is poised to glide into the future thanks to a major gift, state officials said.

The Michigan Iron Industry Museum in the Upper Peninsula recently received a $120,000 federal grant to restore the Yankee, considered one of the oldest surviving steam locomotives in the United States.

The Yankee has been on the grounds of the Michigan Iron Industry Museum since 1987.

The vertical boiler vehicle is unique: it’s believed to be among only three left in the world manufactured by Alexander Chaplin and Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, between 1862-68.

“The Yankee is a rare artifact and is an integral part of the Michigan Iron Industry Museum’s collections, and its preservation has been on our project list for some time,” said Barry James, the historian for the museum.

Located in Negaunee, the site is part of the Michigan History Center, an agency in the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

The locomotive has mostly sat idle there since the museum opened to the public in May 1987 at the site of what historians call the first iron manufactory in the Lake Superior region. In the past, it played a pivotal role in Michigan's history.

First operated in the 1860s, when the railroad industry was sizable and trains boosted transportation, the Yankee helped deliver the industrial revolution to the Lake Superior iron mines, which led the nation in production between the 1850s and the 1890s, state officials said.

“The Yankee and its twin, the John Bull, signaled the first major technological change for the Upper Peninsula iron mines — the coming of steam,” James said. “Until the locomotives began hauling ore at the Jackson Mine in Negaunee around 1868, all the work was done by human or animal power. The locomotives made removing the ore more efficient.”

The locomotive could haul six to 10 small, four-wheel ore cars, each capable of carting five to six tons, traveling at a maximum 10 miles an hour, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Miners pose with the Yankee locomotive at the Jackson Mine, Negaunee, circa 1880.

It operated until 1890 and was decommissioned, James said.

The Yankee spent decades stored outside the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company offices in Ishpeming before it was donated to the state on July 31, 1986.

The wear of the years left it about 70% intact with nearly 60% of the original parts, the DNR said.

Last year, staffers at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum sought restoration funding through a competitive grant program under the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that works to boost educational institutions.

The museum was among more than 500 applicants and only 130 funding recipients, officials said.

“We received a very rich slate of applications this year, making the award process extremely competitive,” said Paula Gangopadhyay, deputy director at the IMLS Office of Museum Services. “IMLS is pleased to fund projects in museums across America that are making an impact on their local communities, helping preserve and make collections more accessible and enriching lifelong learning experiences.”

The museum is slated to hire a conservation firm to evaluate the Yankee, plot a treatment plan and transport it to another site to begin upgrading the locomotive as early as this spring, James said.

Overhauling the Yankee, including replacing missing and deteriorated components, could take up to a year and will begin "as soon as it can be shipped," James told The Detroit News.

The goal is to permanently display the locomotive for the museum’s estimated 13,000 annual visitors as a gallery centerpiece, he said.

"It has been enjoyed by locomotive enthusiasts as well as the general public," James said.