Shuttered dinner train might be leaving Stillwater station

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2011 - 11:01 PM

Two buyers are interested in the Minnesota Zephyr, but it would go to another state.

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The Minnesota Zephyr, which took more than 1 million people out to dinner over 23 years, now sits idle in Stillwate

Photo: Kevin Giles, Star Tribune

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Stillwater's iconic Minnesota Zephyr dinner train could be dismantled and trucked away soon if buyers from Iowa or Texas close a deal.

The eight-car train, advertised for sale nationally at $532,000, needs cosmetic and mechanical work after sitting idle for two years, said owner David Paradeau. Two potential buyers -- one who's made an offer -- have emerged recently, he said.

"With a paint job, it could sparkle like the diamond it was in the past," said Paradeau, a longtime marketing executive who in the 1980s built the train into a major attraction that drew customers from a five-state area.

Until its final hurrah on New Year's Eve 2008, the Zephyr offered five-course dinners by candlelight on white tablecloths. Cabaret singers, dressed in period costumes, strolled through five elegant dining cars. In its 23 years of operation, more than 1 million customers went to Stillwater for a romantic journey on a train that rumbled over the tracks for three hours.

Paradeau said he's selling the train at a reduced price because a buyer could expect to pay $150,000 to haul the train out of Stillwater on flatbed trailers. Upgrading the train's appearance and mechanics for use on a mainline railroad would cost another $100,000, he said. He has contracted with a Missouri company, Ozark Mountain Rail Cars, to sell the Zephyr.

"There's been a fair amount of interest in the train," said Ozark owner John Suscheck. The Zephyr, he said, is one of two complete dinner trains now on the market nationwide. "It's a nice train set. There are some very historic cars there."

The Zephyr with its three bars, three kitchens and the popular Grand Dome with 80 feet of glass, once was valued at more than $1.25 million, Paradeau said, but it wasn't always a show train. He bought one of the 1951 locomotives in Denver, another in Kansas City. He converted a baggage car from Duluth into a power car that ran the Zephyr's electricity. Four other cars came from Iowa, and the Grand Dome, built in 1938 for the Southern Pacific railroad, was purchased in California.

All of the cars were brought into Stillwater on train tracks that no longer exist. To remove the train a buyer would have to separate each car from its wheel assembly and truck the pieces to a rail line where the train could be transported to its new home, Paradeau said.

The two locomotives weigh more than 100 tons each. The other cars weigh about 60 tons apiece.

Paradeau also owns the depot where the Zephyr remains parked at the north end of Stillwater's downtown. That building, which he built in 1993 and expanded in 2003, housed a restaurant, gift shop and waiting room for Zephyr passengers.

The building and its surrounding land, which Paradeau is selling separately from the train, has a current price of $2.9 million, he said.

The 6.5-mile railbed the Zephyr followed on its dinner excursions to Grant, west of Stillwater, would become a state hiking trail if the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) exercises a purchase agreement late this spring.

Paradeau has agreed to a $4,235,000 offer for the railbed, which is 100 feet wide in most places.

A new trail would connect with the Gateway State Trail, said Kent Skaar, an acquisitions specialist in the DNR's Parks and Trails Division. The Browns Creek State Trail, as it would be named, would draw "several hundred thousand folks" each year and its gentle grade makes it accessible to people with disabilities, he said.

Paradeau, who moved from Stillwater to Florida in September, said he supports the trail proposal. Money for its purchase isn't guaranteed, however, until state funding priorities are decided and Washington County's informal pledge of $1 million goes to a board vote.

If the land deal falls through, Paradeau said on Friday, he has decided to put the Zephyr back into operation with financial assistance from the federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program.

Meanwhile, the Zephyr sits crowned with snow and waiting for a new purpose. It remains an attraction for people year 'round who pose there for wedding and graduation photographs, Paradeau said, and tourists who want a gander at a train from the past even if it now is silent and dark.

"It's very satisfying this worked as well as it did for as long as it did," Paradeau said.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342

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