Ken Ristow drives one of the Zoo’s two steam engines, which are among only a handful still running in Wisconsin.
It’s up to Ken Ristow and his colleague, Don Patton, to keep the train ticking throughout its mid-March to mid- December season. They alternate the two diesel and two steam engines based on weather and Zoo attendance. It takes more skill to operate the steam locomotives, but they “make the attraction even more interesting,” says Ristow. Driving a steam engine is tough and poten-
Train engineer Ken Ristow is always taken aback when visitors to the Milwaukee County Zoo ask him if the small steam locomotives he drives are fake. “Because the North Shore Bank Safari Train is miniature-sized, some people don’t believe that the coal and steam are real. I’ve been asked if the coal is actually dark colored Styrofoam,” says Ristow. “Well, it’s all real.”
It’s not surprising that a steam engine train would look out of place in a 21st century zoo. Steam engines, essential for transportation in the 19th century, went out of use by the 1950s, says Ristow, who has been driving the nearly 50-year-old train for almost seven years. Only a handful of steam engine trains, including the Zoo train, are left today in southeastern Wisconsin. This train is not only a fascinating blast from the past, but also
tially risky. Ever try boiling water in a 280-gallon tea kettle? Train engineers load coal into a firebox. Hot gases produced by the burning coal heat water to 370 degrees in the boiler. Hot water then produces steam that moves the engine. Steam engines in the 19th and early 20th centuries sometimes caused accidents and explosions. Steam locomotives such as the Zoo’s have many safety features and are inspected annually both by local and federal government authorities. “We maintain a high degree of safety,” says Karl Hackbarth, Zoo operations coordinator. Both train engineers are also licensed and highly trained: Ristow is a certified engineer and mechanic, while Patton has a steam engine operating license.
a part of Zoo history.
Photo by Mike Nepper. Photo at top by Richard Brodzeller
“A train and tracks were part of this Zoo’s plan from the very beginning,” says Mike Garcia, admis- sions and transportation supervisor. The train was custom-made and donated to the Zoo in 1958 by the publishers of The Milwaukee Journal. Although the Zoo was moving from Washington Park to its current Blue Mound Road location at that time, the train and six coaches were up and running during construction. Today, the train’s 1.25-mile route, four locomotives and 19 coaches take 400,000 rid- ers a year across two bridges, past Lake Evinrude and past many animal buildings and exhibits, including the Australia Building, the North America area and the Northwestern Mutual Family Farm.