fbpx Skip to main content

Steam Right On – An Inspiring Steam Revival

By Uncategorized

In May of 1958, the steam locomotive had less than 60 days of life left on the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad.

In Conneaut, Ohio, the slow march toward obsolescence wore on inside the railroad’s shop near South Jackon Street. Sometime that month, it would complete the last overhaul of one of its storied Berkshire-type steam locomotives – an engine numbered 759.

Despite the railroad’s re-investment in the locomotive, its “superpowered” ability to hustle and bustle commerce across the Midwest, and the belief that steam could still play a limited role were it not for an economic recession, the engine would never turn another wheel for the what was more commonly known as the Nickel Plate Road.

A few weeks later in June, the outdated technology that had steadily guided the company for over 70 years would cease. The flame would extinguish entirely that winter when a stored steam engine numbered 765 was fired up for a stranded passenger train in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and as a few yard engines loped around Bellevue, Ohio to fill-in amidst their diesel-powered replacements.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, a variety of retired engines had been plucked from the scrap line, destined to become city monuments or encounter other fates – Nickel Plate Mikado-types went to Hammond and Indianapolis, Indiana, and Bloomington, Illinois; one Hudson went to St. Louis and two others to a private owner; but the Berkshires, still listed as “stored serviceable” on the company roster, languished around the system. In 1962, F. Nelson Blount purchased the 759 for his collection at Steamtown USA, a swelling museum collection of itinerant steam locomotives located in New Hampshire, and later relocated to Bellows Falls, Vermont.

NKP 2-8-4 759

Not long after, a collection of steam history enthusiasts which comprised the High Iron Company had sprung up operating steam excursions in the East. “HiCo” was determined to celebrate the centennial of the Transcontinental Railroad a short time away in 1969. They knew that pulling a massive, barnstorming, cross-country steam excursion required a superpower. They needed the 759.

The engine was leased from Steamtown, only to find itself relocated back to Conneaut. There, the Nickel Plate’s successor Norfolk & Western permitted the engine back to where it had originally left in like-new condition only ten years earlier. In just a few months, the engine was tuned up and repaired by a menagerie of teenagers, investors, former Nickel Platers, and dozens of others. By August of 1968, the 759 was alive again.

For several years, the 759 romped around the general railroad system, racking up thousands of miles between New Jersey, Kansas City, Roanoke, Horsehoe Curve, Cumberland, Jim Thorpe, and beyond, operating specials, charters, and excursions with paying passengers and diehards in attendance by the thousands.

With its signature gravelly whistle spreading its melody over different time zones, it pulled most of the eastern leg of the 1969 Golden Spike Centennial Limited and the last Norfolk & Western passenger train before Amtrak took over in 1971.

The 759 handily showcasing superpower at Horseshoe Curve during its brief, new life.

The 759 tapped into a cultural zeitgeist in more ways than one. Amid the Golden Spike trips and elsewhere, the engine traveled through a handful of towns in Indiana and Ohio, where it proved to an unorganized group of young railroad fans that a mainline, superpowered steam locomotive like no. 759 could actually be restored. It could actually be done.

In Fort Wayne that group would soon convalesce around a monument in a city park that bore a special resemblance to the 759.

Shortly after the 759 had been selected for Steamtown, five other Berkshires found their own paths to preservation. As the 759 arrived in New Hampshire, the Nickel Plate Road readied sister engine no. 765 for display in Fort Wayne’s Lawton Park in 1964. The 765 had been the last Berkshire under steam for the railroad, whereas the 759 had been the last one overhauled. The two engines had unwittingly become 400-ton bookends in the library of steam locomotive history.

Enchanted by the smell of coal smoke and the success of The High Iron Company, the merry band of advocates formed the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society in 1972 with the intention to preserve, restore and operate the 765. Before the 765 would ever turn a wheel under its own power again in 1979, the 759’s brief career was over, but the engine’s inspiration and members of its very crew would carry the Fort Wayne organization toward realizing their dream. To help, the Society acquired a 16mm print of Steam Right On, a lovingly crafted, 18-minute documentary showcasing the 759’s own revival.

Filmed by Michael Autorino, narrated by Alan Frank, and produced by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the film’s soundtrack interchanges the imagined “voice” of the 759 with commentary from its crew members, all set against a plucky, folksy guitar track, professional, vivid cinematography, with excited, montage-style editing. It feels a little dated, but in a way that is charmingly so. “Come to think of it, who’s more suited to whistle-stop campaigning than I am?” asks the narrator.

While we see plenty of the 759’s crew at work, the filmmaker makes a distinctive creative choice to never use traditionally shot interviews or “talking heads.” We hear only the “voice” of the 759 and the evocative remarks from her laborers. The variety of footage is also striking – with glimpses of Ridgeley, West Virginia coming out to welcome the 759 on the Western Maryland Railroad and coverage of the 759’s long climb up the Middle Division of Penn Central over Horseshoe Curve.

A custom cut of the film was created by the Society for use in fundraising for the 765. At the tail end of the reel, footage of the 765’s crew is spliced in, showing them hard at work wrangling the 765 back to life in a section entitled “PROJECT 765.”

The footage plays out silently, meant to be narrated in-person by its presenters, wherever the 765’s crew was giving a much-needed pitch. While the High Iron Company had been funded by investors like Ross Rowland, the Fort Wayne group had settled their efforts in a modest field, without a shop facility like Calumet, and with only a grassroots donation campaign underway.

By 1979, the 765 was successfully restored, but the 759’s time had passed. When the Society shared Steam Right On, no one knew that the passing of the torch had already occurred. Suffering several mechanical issues, it was returned to Bellows Falls where it rested until it was relocated into the reorganized Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1984. For twenty years, the 765 would nonetheless follow its example, operating for Norfolk & Western’s successor Norfolk Southern, crossing the Mississippi River, gliding through the New River Gorge, climbing Horsehoe Curve, and marching into downtown Chicago in passenger excursion and public exhibition service, delighting millions of people from around the world.

In 2015, the 765 was welcomed to Steamtown for a series of special events – and for the first time since the late 1950s, two Nickel Plate Berkshires sat side-by-side in a roundhouse together. In steam preservation, where so many pieces of equipment were once scattered to the wind, the idea that two large mainline locomotives of the same class, same railroad, same type, same-nearly-everything, would co-exist together is a rarity. The bookends had finally met.

Bookends.

The 759’s role as a teaching tool has extended far beyond Conneaut or Steamtown.

It taught a new generation that it could be done.

But why’d they do it?

We should let 759 answer:

“Why do they do it? What causes their admiration? Where did their love begin? Where does it come from, this fascination that men have for me? My kind? The enthusiasm and admiration transcend time. Whether in a big city or a small town, the people turn out. Some, perhaps, with nostalgic memories of their youth. Still others with a youthful curiosity to see me first hand, for the first time…Well, let’s just say that this country and we grew hand in hand. We made an impression on each other. And each was better for it.”

Restoration of historic Wabash caboose completed

By Uncategorized

The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, Inc (FWRHS) has completed an extensive rebuild of its historic, century-old Wabash Railroad caboose no. 2534 – one of only two wooden Wabash cabooses in existence.

Once on display in Fort Wayne’s Swinney Park in 1957, the caboose and Wabash steam locomotive no. 534 were part of a monument installed by the Tri-State Railroad Community Committee, a consortium of area railroad employees. In 1984, the display was relocated to the FWRHS in New Haven.

While the caboose was used occasionally in events and operations in New Haven, its condition had deteriorated after 60 years of exposure to the elements. In 2018, project manager David “DJ” DePanicis, a school director from the Youngstown, Ohio region, determined that his woodworking background would enable him to take on the project in a leadership role.

With donations from members and the general public, in addition to assistance from the Wabash Railroad Historical Society, DePanicis and a team of over a dozen regular volunteers steadily disassembled and rebuilt the caboose over three years and committed over 5,000 hours to the effort. 90% of the structure was replaced and over 1,000 pieces of new lumber were used in the effort, including several curved and arched beams that were hand-made for the interior roof.

“We have such a great variety of people at the Society. Whether you have carpentry skills, are just providing general labor, or have just a love of history, our projects are the kind that anyone can lend a hand in, regardless of skills,” remarked DePanicis. “Restoring a caboose is a lot like building a house with your best friends.”

Generally, cabooses were used by train crews on freight trains to supervise their train and shipments en-route. Due to the long hours involved in the trade, they were often outfitted with desks, tables, beds, stoves, washbasins, and water closet and customized by their employees. This particular caboose was outfitted with a coal-fired stove cast in a Fort Wayne foundry. The caboose contains a combination of original kerosene and new and donated electric lamps for nighttime illumination and a pair of original Wabash Railroad marker lights were also donated to the project.

Wabash caboose no. 2534 will continue to serve in an educational and entertainment capacity, hosting families aboard the organization’s popular Santa Train and other seasonal events. The caboose’s counterpart, steam locomotive no. 534, is currently undergoing preparation for a restoration of its own sometime in the future.

2020 Santa Train Announcement

By News

Out of concern for our patrons and volunteers  – and in consultation with old Saint Nick himself – the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society has decided not to operate its Santa Train this December. 

This decision was reached after reviewing numerous financial, logistical, and health-related concerns, and also in discussions with our rail tourism partners in Indiana. It has been made in the interest of public safety and in deference to state guidelines on public gatherings.

“The Santa Train is a family-friendly event, and the unique, cherished experience with Santa aboard our historic train is the highlight,” stated Society vice-president Kelly Lynch. 

“While we explored several alternative experiences, COVID-19’s impact on our Allen County is burdening our local health care community, and the number of cases continues to rise. Ultimately we determined that it was in the best interest of everyone to withdraw the event for the year,” Lynch said. 

The Santa Train has also become an important annual fundraiser for the organization, and its annulment represents a notable financial loss. 

Donations to offset this financial loss can be made online at fortwaynerailroad.org. Additionally, several Christmas items will be made available through the organization’s online store in December.

The Santa Train has become one of the community’s favorite traditions for over 20 years, welcoming thousands of people each season from the tri-state region. Its origins began over 70 years ago with the Pennsylvania Railroad and Wolf and Dessauer Santa Train which visited Fort Wayne each season.

Outdoor Autumn Railroad Festival Announced for October

By Events

Updated 10/1: All Pumpkin Train Tickets are sold out. General Admission tickets are required for entry. All tickets must be purchased in advance.

On October 1st through the 4th, this admission-only event will offer socially distanced train rides, vintage steam locomotive no. 765 operating for the enjoyment of attendees, historic railroad displays, and locally-owned food trucks.

Read More

City and Headwaters Junction strike deal, partnership

By Headwaters Junction, News, Uncategorized

July 13, 2020, FORT WAYNE, INDIANA – Statement from the Headwaters Junction Board of Directors regarding the Redevelopment Commission’s vote approving the City of Fort Wayne’s purchase of Headwaters Junction’s interest in the Norfolk Southern railroad right-of-way property:

“As we have from the beginning, we are proud to partner with the City as they continue their efforts to make Fort Wayne a world-class place to live, work and play. We believe this agreement with the City is the right step for Fort Wayne and its ongoing efforts to transform our riverfront into an amazing destination for residents and visitors alike.

At the same time, we are excited about what the future holds for Headwaters Junction. While its concept as a recreated rail yard, roundhouse and tourist railroad is rooted in our history, its vision looks confidently to the future. It will bring a mixed-use regional destination offering unique programs, events, connectivity and truly memorable experiences, while celebrating our city’s local culture and identity.

We are grateful to the City for its continued support of Headwaters Junction, and we look forward to working with its Community Development team to set the foundation for the City’s partnership and contribution to creating a regional destination entirely unique to Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana.”

The City of Fort Wayne also released a statement:

“Advancing Riverfront Fort Wayne helps us continue to improve the quality of place that so many employers are looking for,” said Townsend. “I want to thank the Headwaters Junction Board of Directors for transferring the purchase agreement to the Redevelopment Commission and I look forward to working with them as they bring their vision of creating a vibrant regional destination to life.”

WANE 15 reports:

“We talked through the plans and future of the riverfront,” Redevelopment Director Nancy Townsend told the commission about her conversations with the railroad preservation group. “Headwaters Junction still has plans and will still occur.”

While Monday’s vote likely means the end of the project’s riverfront plans, WANE 15 has learned a new location in the downtown area has been discussed between Headwaters Junction and city leaders. The specific location has not yet been publicly announced.

“There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re not doing it alone,” Headwaters Junction Executive Director Kelly Lynch said.

The Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly details the evolution of Headwaters Junction and its partnership with the City:

“Lynch, Headwaters Junction’s executive director and vice president of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, sees the transfer of the purchase agreement to the city as a bit of a fast track for eventual development of the $15-$20 million project, a place to transport visitors back in time. An important aspect of the project is that it’s not just going to appeal to train enthusiasts, but have recreational and tourism aspects as well, he said.

“This (transfer) really officiates the start of a more formal working partnership with the city,” Lynch said. Over the last couple of years, the city has come to understand not only the vision of the project, but also the impact on tourism, economic development and its quality-of-life benefits, he said.

“Rather than working separately on projects that are meant to benefit the community like riverfront development and Headwaters Junction, we’re finally working together,” he said.”

Icons of Industry: Our 2020 Projects

By Uncategorized

A visit to the shop in recent months will have revealed over a half dozen restoration projects all happening at once – a first in the Society’s long existence. First, the 765 is now all roller bearing. This adaptation required lifting the 765 twice before the season began this year. Some minor teething issues were worked out on the 765’s deadhead move to Ohio and minor modifications were made this winter to ensure a problem-free 2020.

With the 765 in great condition and needing only regular seasonal maintenance, our volunteers have rallied around on numerous other restoration projects:

1.) Wabash steam locomotive no. 534 is a 1906 graduate of the American Locomotive Works and throughout 2019 underwent an extensive ultra-sound test that has yielded positive results. Plans call for the tender to be rebuilt and finished first. Thanks to Jerrad Bennet, Carl Lyvers, and Steve Winicker for keeping the momentum up on this historic engine.

2.) 534’s tender has been completely disassembled for reconstruction. Given the engine’s special place in history, a recent donation from the Wabash Railroad Historical Society will help cover some initial costs for new steel.

3.) Wabash Caboose no. 2543 is another old-timer, and was relocated from Sweeney Park in 1984 at the same time as the 534. While the Society used the car for on-site events for many years, we weren’t able to start the badly needed repair work on this caboose until recently when DJ DePanicis felt that his carpentry background would give him a comfort level suitable enough to take the project on. Between 80-90% of the car’s interior and exterior are being replaced and thanks to recent structural reinforcements, it is the strongest it has been in decades. Several successful buy-a-board campaigns show promise of a completed caboose within 24 months.

4.) Used almost continuously for tools, parts, and storage since we acquired it, our 1904 Lake Erie & Western boxcar is likewise returning to form under the management of Rich Brinkley. With the 534, Wabash caboose, and this rare Lake Erie boxcar, we’ll have an outstanding 19th Century freight train for operation and interpretation.

5). Our forlorn Illinois Terminal flatcar has been repaired, re-decked, and re-stenciled in homage to Wabash 534’s pending restoration and will be used as a mobile work platform for that project. All of this was achieved in just eight weekends!

6.) Our Amtrak baggage cars and dining car got their first dose of cinders as the 765 departed Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad with them last fall. Work on installing a generator, building a power car, new crew car, and putting the dining car into service for merchandise and food sales is on the docket for 2020.

We’re also hard at work on planning for Headwaters Junction and recently updated headwatersjunction.com with renderings, photos and videos, locations, FAQs, and much more.

We invite you to spend some time learning about where we’re headed and look forward to sharing the next steps in the continuation of this strategic plan!