Heart problems claim railroad man Thompson

Richard Thompson in front of his pride and joy, steam engine No. 4. (File photo by Cliff Buchan)
Richard Thompson in front of his pride and joy, steam engine No. 4. (File photo by Cliff Buchan)

Ironhorse Central Railroad Museum founder was 72 when he died on Feb. 4


Cliff Buchan
Staff Writer

Some railroad men spend their lives on the railroad, laboring 40 hours a week, working on trains and in rail yards. That was Richard Thompson’s life for 40 years, but it was just one part of his lifelong love of railroading.

Nearly 50 years ago, Thompson teamed with family members and friends to build the Ironhorse Central Railroad Museum on his farm in rural Chisago Lake Township. He labored long and hard on the museum grounds while working full-time as a train engineer for the Milwaukee Road, the Soo Line and the Canadian Pacific railroads.

Thompson works on an engine light.
Thompson works on an engine light.

The area is now without its museum master. Thompson was 72 when he died on Tuesday, Feb. 4, following open-heart bypass surgery at Fairview Southdale Hospital.

Thompson spent his life working to preserve railroad history, and his life’s work is on display at the family’s operating museum.

It was Thompson who teamed with family and friends to save a steam engine in Dresser, Wis. The engine, steamer No. 4, is the signature piece at the Ironhorse Central and was Thompson’s pride and joy.

When the museum needed a depot, Thompson purchased the old depot at Groningen and moved the structure to the farm.

If a rail car or caboose came up for sale and caught Thompson’s eye, they were added to the collection.

When it became clear to Thompson that the history of the railroad that once connected Wyoming and Taylors Falls was slipping into obscurity, Thompson teamed with another rail fan, Steve Monson, in 2005 to write and publish “The Taylors Falls & Lake Superior Railroad.” It was detailed book rich in text and photos that documented the history of the railroad that operated from 1880 to 1948.

And there were many other acts of preservation. When the city of Brainerd decided it no longer wanted an old steam engine rusting away in a city park, Thompson bought the engine and moved it to the farm.

“He did a tremendous job of preserving railroad history that would never have been preserved otherwise,” said Neil Mattson, a Wyoming resident who grew up less than a block from the Northern Pacific tracks in Forest Lake. Mattson and Thompson met as a result of their love for railroading.

“We used to chase steam engines up the line to Duluth,” Mattson said of those rare days when a steamer would travel through Forest Lake over the St. Paul-to-Duluth line that was abandoned by the Burlington Northern and removed in the late 1980s. The two became friends, and Mattson would make four or five visits to the Ironhorse Central every summer.

“He really knew his stuff, and steam history in particular,” Mattson said. “He loved to talk trains and I loved to talk trains.”

Thompson had become a lifelong fan of steam railroads growing up not far from a railroad line in Minneapolis. His interest in railroads was focused on the St. Paul-to-Duluth line and its branch line from Wyoming to Taylors Falls.

1960s start

Thompson was working for the Milwaukee Road when he moved to the farm in Chisago Lake Township in the early 1960s. His railroad job was interrupted by a stint in the Army and combat service in Vietnam. By 1965, Thompson, his twin brother Robert, and friend Doug Alexander teamed to form the Ironhorse Central Railroad Museum.

During its 49 years, the museum acquired and restored 20 pieces of railroad equipment. The first major project was the purchase of steamer No. 4 from the Dresser Trap Rock business in Wisconsin. Thompson’s son, Eric, is now part of the museum operation and since 2005 has run a tourist train operation each spring.

The museum each summer and fall has sponsored train days for rail fans, drawing large crowds for museum tours and train rides. The steam locomotive has been fired up and used to pull excursion trains. The 1-mile loop of track at the farm museum was completed in 1985.

Thompson’s partnership with Monson to write the Taylors Falls railroad book was just one step in his preservation efforts. He was a skilled photographer and writer and would provide photographs and stories of rail matters to a numerous publications.

A kind man

At his funeral on Saturday at Chisago Lakes Baptist Church in Chisago City, Thompson was remembered by George Cable, a retired pastor, as a “tough, but kind” man who loved his family, the farm, the museum and God.

“He believed the gospel,” said Cable, a 38-year friend of Thompson. “He loved the gospel. He took a stand for the gospel.”

Cable said Thompson showed his faith by being an active member of the church for many years and helping build the school where Thompson’s three children would graduate. He had been a member of Chisago Lakes Baptist but switched to Sunrise Bible Church, where Cable had been preaching.

Melissa Johnson remembered her father as a “walking history book” who enjoyed family trips.

“He took all of the kids on trips, especially if it had a railroad involved,” she said.

Funeral details

Cable and David Stertz, pastor at Sunrise, officiated at Saturday’s funeral.

Interment with full military honors followed at Chisago Memorial Park, Chisago City.

Thompson is survived by his wife of 44 years, Caroline; daughter, Melissa (Chris) Johnson; one son, Eric (Trena) Thompson; 13 grandchildren; one brother, Kenneth (Marilyn); other relatives and friends.

He was preceded in death by his parents, Newton and Doris Thompson; one son, Karl; one brother, Robert, in 2001.

Memorials are preferred to the Sunrise Bible Church building fund and may be sent to the church at 41300 Second St., North Branch, MN 55056.

A railroad hymn was performed at the service as a send-off to Thompson. “Life’s Railway to Heaven” included this verse: “Life is like a mountain railroad, with an engineer that’s brave. We must make the run successful, from the cradle to the grave. With the curves, the hills, the tunnels; never falter, never quail. Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.”