By Sue Bruns for the Pioneer.
Andy Mack loves all things railroad: railroad history, railroad depots, railroad cars and tracks, lanterns and tools, time tables and correspondences, and even baggage carts. For most of his adult life, he has collected railroad memorabilia, studied railroad history, built model railroads, and toured by train on vacation whenever possible.
As a kid born and raised in Pettybone, N. D., Andy’s only railroad-related toy was a small wind-up train. On the family farm, he helped milk thirteen cows by hand. Back then, the railroad transported the milk to market. Cream cans were loaded onto baggage carts and then transferred to train cars.
“Depots and railroads were the lifeline for us when we were on the farm,” Andy says, “until the interstate system took over.” Andy’s passion for railroads always goes back to those early days on the farm. That passion grew back in 1966 when he worked as caretaker of a small hotel, a whistlestop on an abandoned railroad line in New Mexico. Interacting with his brother-in-law, a depot agent, also increased his interest in railroads. As depots closed and railroad companies merged, it became even more important to Andy to preserve the history of railroads.
When he arrived in Bemidji in 1967 to work as a surveyor for Stewart and Walker, a civil engineering firm, the heydays of railroad were already over. Passenger routes that used to take people from Bemidji to International Falls, Grand Forks, Duluth, Minneapolis, or to any of the little towns along the way, declined with the growth of the automobile industry. Major logging operations had shut down and moved west. Agriculture products and freight were being shipped by trucks on the interstate.
In the 1980s, Bemidji’s Great Northern Depot — the last depot commissioned by railroad magnate James J. Hill — closed and was slated for the wrecking ball. Andy Mack was among the local citizens who worked to raise funds and save the building, even contributing a good amount of his own money. He became involved with the Beltrami County Historical Society and is serving his fourth term on its Board of Directors.
The restored Great Northern Depot, now home to the BCHS and its museum, is one of his favorite places to be. When maintenance issues arise, Andy is there for minor repairs in the building. If the joints of a rocking chair are loose or cracked, Handy Andy is there to fix the problem. When an old roll-top desk in the museum’s collection doesn’t “roll,” Andy completely disassembles the piece, diagnoses the problem, and puts it back together. When a donor brings in several wooden legal bookcases, Andy reassembles them. When an exhibit piece needs to move, Andy puts wheels on the structure.
In the depot’s basement, Andy and other members of the Northern Iron Horse Railroad Society, have met on Wednesday evenings since the museum re-opened in 2000. “I’m the only surviving charter member,” Andy says. Others have either moved out of town or passed away. COVID-19 has put a halt to the model railroad club’s weekly meetings and to a re-building project they’d hoped to finish in time for the April Train Days at the Depot (also canceled due to COVID). The society stays in touch through emails but won’t be meeting any time soon.
On display in the depot’s museum is one of thirteen luggage carts Andy has salvaged and restored, a hobby he started back in 1995 when he purchased his first cart at an auction. (Recently, he picked up cart number thirteen from McIntosh). In the early 1990’s, Andy and his wife Marge built a replica gambrel-roofed barn, which is his restoration shop.
Like his love of trains, his particular affection for baggage carts also is rooted in his early days on the farm. The baggage cart, says Andy, “is the most ignored and forgotten tool of the railroad — kind of the wheelbarrow of the world. Everything that went in or came out (of a train car) did so on a baggage cart.”
There’s not much known about the carts — who manufactured them or where — but they all use the same basic steel and oak design. “All of them are kind of standard,” Andy says, “about 10-foot long, by 40-inches wide. I put them back as close to original as I can,” he says. “If the lower part is available, I can restore it.” He never throws out an old piece “because that’s your pattern.” He gets frame replacement parts from Bemidji Steel, and he’s always on the lookout for good pieces of oak. About half of the carts are still in his possession; the rest are scattered across Minnesota in various museums.
When he and Marge travel, trains and museums are a part of their vacations. One of their most memorable trips was on the Rocky Mountaineer through the Canadian Rockies from Banff to Kamloops and Kamloops to Jasper. Andy says they met or passed about 30 freights over those two days.
Another favorite trip was in 2009: “Marge, grandchildren and I took Amtrak to Williamsburg, Virginia, to visit the 1700’s living and active Village Museum, which was on the top of our museum list.”
COVID-19 has slowed things down for travel, for the museum, and for the train society, but it can’t dampen Andy’s love of trains and depots. He’s still volunteering at the museum — wearing a mask made by Marge — and still collecting and restoring railroad memorabilia because, as Andy says, “It’s part of our history.”