When former U.S. Senator Rod Grams died this week, it brought back several memories. In the spring of 1997, then Senator Grams was invited to address a joint session of the Minnesota House and Senate at the capitol in St. Paul. Mayors of several of the hard hit “flood towns” from the Minnesota River and the Red River were invited to the event and recognized on the floor of the House chamber. Jim Curtiss, mayor of of Montevideo at the time, and I felt a bit overwhelmed but it was interesting to say the least. Afterward, there was a reception at the governor’s mansion where we had a chance to visit. Far from being another big ego politician, he was surprisingly self-effacing and humble and was quite fun to talk to. While we didn’t line up much in our political viewpoints, he seemed sincere and genuine, which was nice to see.
Later that same summer, Governor Arne Carlson’s office flew a delegation of us to Washington D.C. to speak to several members of Congress about flood relief. Minnesota was struggling to get a handle on how much flood recovery was available from FEMA and other federal agencies and was hoping some folks from “back home” could help to lean on some of the powers that be to get the same share of federal assistance as the towns on the North Dakota side of the Red River.
Jim and I were like ducks out of water but we linked up with some mayors from the Red River and together we ended up meeting with our representative, Dave Minge, and their representative, Collin Perterson, who is now our representative. They were both members of what was called the “Blue Dog” caucus which was comprised of several House members mostly from rural districts who were bi-partisan and moderate in their views, something that Washington D.C. could use a bit more of these days.
They arranged a meeting for us with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in his capitol office to discuss flood recovery funding. Afterward, we went downstairs and waited in the lobby while the Senate was in session, sending in a message for our Minnesota senators that we, along with Dave Minge and Collin Peterson, would like to meet with them.
Soon the big Senate chamber doors slid open and out together came the most unique pair of senators in the nation: Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams. It was memorable: one short, one tall, one bubbly one more reserved, one slightly rumpled and one more formal. They couldn’t have been more opposite and yet they were both glad to see us and were very engaging.
Page 2 of 3 - I’m not sure how Minnesota could have elected two people so different yet, there they both were as we stood in the Senate lobby next to a bust of Hubert Humphrey and another of John C. Calhoun, two noteworthy past senators and vice presidents. Jim and I looked at each other as if to ask each other what we were doing there.
In the end there was more money for Minnesota flood recovery, thanks to their work and our government did good things and helped people, like it is supposed to do.
Three years later, Rod Grams visited Granite following the terrible F-4 tornado in July 2000 and we walked around, talking to folks and talking about what help could be found to help the community recover. He said he would do what he could, and would reach across the political aisle to try to find some help. That visit resulted in a bill for a direct federal allocation of $1 million for Granite that sailed through the Senate and House and was quickly signed by President Bill Clinton. We were so busy at the time I’m not sure I had time to offer enough thanks for his work on our behalf.
He was sincere and humble. It’s easy to like someone like that.
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About 15 years ago, the Twin Cities and Western Railroad played host, in our area, to what was then a newly restored steam locomotive, the Milwaukee Road 261. That big steam engine, built in 1944 in Schenectady, New York was only operated in regular railroad service for 10 years and then was retired during the quick change-over by railroads from steam locomotives to diesel-electric locomotives.
The Milwaukee 261 was placed in the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin for several years but in 1992 was leased and hauled to Minneapolis for rebuilding. After two years of work, it was back on the rails and eventually made some trips our way.
A lot of folks from our area might remember seeing the Milwaukee 261 pull trains back and forth from Monte to Granite. We took that scenic and fun ride in the valley along with a whole lot of other folks. The steam engine sounded great chugging as it pulled the train uphill on the high line at Granite. The sound of the engine and its steam whistle echoing across the river valley was memorable.
The last time the big 261 steam engine passed through Granite was in 2001 or 2002. Since then it has is has gone through a tussle over ownership which was resolved with the “Friends of 261” buying the locomotive and then giving it a required rebuild.
Page 3 of 3 - Last weekend it made its second trip since the rebuild when it pulled a train of vintage passenger cars with about 400 folks on board from its home base in Northeast Minneapolis to Willmar.
It was too much to resist. I decide that I had to see this thing operate again so I and our two curly-haired grandsons joined a few hundred others in the rain at Willmar, watching the big beast pull into town and spew steam and coal smoke all over the place.
It made quite an impression on the youngsters and on their grandad, too. Kian said it looked like the tank engine in one of his books. Evan was a bit scared by the loud whistle and the steam but impressed as we watched the 230 ton locomotive get turned around on the roundhouse turntable, something that turntable hasn’t been done with a steam engine in nearly 60 years. We watched it take on water then got up close as the 74 inch wheels slowly rolled forward and the big steamer steadily accelerated as it pulled its train out of town. It was a sight to see and there were plenty of old men acting like kids.
I’m not sure if there’s a better way to spend a Saturday than acting like a kid.