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Patients heading to Mayo Clinic from Chicago rode in comfort on the Lister

The specially designed Pullman rail car included beds and special shock absorbers to make the trip more comfortable.

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The "Lister" carried patients from Chicago to Rochester from 1930 to 1963. The specially made train car has been refurbished by the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wis.
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A little-remembered era of Mayo Clinic history has been brought back to life by the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wis.

The museum has restored a railroad car especially designed by the Pullman Co. for the transportation of Mayo patients from Chicago to Rochester. The car, which was owned and operated by the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, made the trip from 1930 to 1963, carrying thousands of patients to Rochester.

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The car was named the Lister, in honor of pioneering British physician Joseph Lister, who is recognized as the founder of antiseptic practices in medicine. It featured private rooms, double-wide doors to accommodate stretchers, and special shock absorbers to reduce noise and vibration. The trip from Chicago to Rochester was generally made overnight, with ambulances meeting the Lister at the Rochester station in the morning.

The museum has been working on restoration of the car, which had been gutted and used for storage, since July 2019.

“This was the most difficult restoration project I’ve been a part of,” said Jeff Truckey, the museum’s facilities specialist. “It’s nice to be a part of a project like this that future generations will be able to enjoy and learn from.”

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“It’s been a labor of love and a work of art,” Matthew Dacy, director of Mayo Clinic’s Heritage Hall, said of the museum’s efforts. “The skill and the passion – this is a heroic accomplishment.”

The Lister has been part of the museum’s collection of railroad cars since 1988. In 2018, the museum determined that the Lister should be given priority for restoration. Working from 100 blueprints, a restoration team of nine museum employees and volunteers fabricated parts and materials, installed new wiring and metalwork, and matched paint colors. The Lister today looks as fresh as when it made the first trip in 1930.

In those days, before super highways and frequent air travel, Rochester was not an easy place to reach other than by rail.

“The railroad was essential to Mayo’s growth and development,” Dacy said. “People would travel long distances in frail health to get here to Mayo. Chicago was a major rail hub. People would travel from their homes to Chicago and then board the train to Rochester.”

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Patients being transported overnight from Chicago to Rochester on the "Lister" rail car needed beds to be made comfortable on the journey. The specially made rail car that ran from 1930 to 1963 between the two cities has been refurbished by the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wis.
Contributed photo

Through the Great Depression, World War II and the boom years of the 1950s, the Lister made its regular run to Rochester, delivering patients to Mayo Clinic. “It was a wonderful service,” Dacy said. “All the effort that Pullman went to, with the special design. Care could take place before the patient ever reached Rochester.”

Many of the patients the rail car transported to Rochester were treated at Saint Marys Hospital, which had an interesting connection to the Lister name. The hospital was one of the first in North America to adopt Lister’s principles of antiseptic medical practice, Dacy said.

The Chicago and Northwestern “Rochester 400” passenger train, which included the Lister, made its final run to Rochester on July 23, 1963. With that, the era of passenger rail travel that brought so many patients to Mayo Clinic receded into history.

For those who wish to see the restored Lister first-hand, the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay is open year-round. The museum holds 70 pieces of rolling stock and 100,000 rail-related artifacts.

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Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

Then and Now - Thomas Tom Weber col sig

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.
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