As Engine No. 765 belched a plume of black, soot-laden smoke into the clear October sky, 6-year-old Levi Jones’ eyes widened and a big grin spread across his face.
“That was neat,” he said, staring at the massive black machine parked not 15 feet from him.
The old, and beautifully restored, steam engine was on display Saturday at the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s TrainTown in rural New Haven. As society members and railroad aficionados stood around in the cold air and watched, children clambered up and down the steps into the engine’s cabin or climbed into the second story of the old caboose in the workshop.
The open house marked the end of the first successful season in 16 years for the classic train, which was taken off the line for a painstaking and expensive restoration, one of the most complete rebuilds of its type, said Kelly Lynch, communications manager for the railroad society.
For Levi’s grandfather, Harry Jones, the train brings back memories of his childhood in Richmond – taking a trip with his Cub Scout pack to catch a game at Wrigley Field in Chicago and going with his father to take the mail to the train station, where it was sorted.
“I remember seeing the train come in,” he said. “The ground just shook.”
No. 765 wasn’t shaking the ground much Saturday afternoon, but as it sat there, looking almost alive with the steam bellowing out from underneath it and its whistle occasionally piercing the air, it garnered most of the visitors’ attention.
In the steam engine world, No. 765 is a celebrity, one of the first of its type to be rebuilt and go out on passenger excursions in the 1980s, Lynch said.
Until earlier this year, the engine hadn’t pulled passenger cars since 1993.
Built in 1944 at the Lima Locomotive Works, the Berkshire-type steam engine weighs 404 tons and stands 15 feet high.
For more than a decade, the train sat in a Fort Wayne park, rusting in the rain. In the early 1970s, restoration work began.
In the early 1980s, No. 765 traveled through the Midwest and the East Coast as an excursion train. It was again retired in the early 1990s and rebuilt to its 1944 specifications, according to the historical society.
This past Memorial Day, the engine began the second phase of its career as an excursion train, and its return to New Haven this week marked the end of the season.
Society volunteers have some upgrades planned for the old engine over the winter, Lynch said. And the plan is to continue to run it as long as they can and as long as it can earn its keep.
Coal costs about $120 a ton, and the engine uses its capacity of 22 tons to go about 150 to 200 miles, pulling the coal into its firebox using an auger under the cabin, Lynch said.
It can cost about $4,000 to $8,000 a day to operate it, not counting insurance and other costs, he said.
The more mundane maintenance of the engine was lost on Levi Jones and his siblings as they stood next to No. 765, clearly awed by the monster machine.
“I like it when it rains on me,” said 4-year-old Natalie Jones, her blue hood dotted with the soot from the steam, the remains of a day spent with the train.