It was too snowy the day after Christmas and most of the local businesses closed early. So I emailed my Midwest Railway Preservation Society contact to say, “how about tomorrow?”
The ground was still covered in several inches of snow that next day as my dad and I headed to the society in an industrial part of downtown Cleveland. Though I was a member of the organization, joining after reading an inspiring article about their preservation work, I’d never been to their headquarters. So we set out with my trusty talking smartphone GPS to guide us.
We drove downtown and across the Cuyahoga River on the Innerbelt Bridge. Wasn’t this the one where they’d shut down some of the lanes a few years back, scared about a collapse in the wake of another city’s bridge collapse? Dad replied, yes, but they’ve stabilized it some since then, and they’re building a replacement next to it. I looked over and to our right, sure enough, a new bridge was taking shape.
After just one wrong turn, we found the entrance to the society. A few other cars and trucks were parked in the small, unplowed lot. I called my contact, unsure of where we were supposed to go. He instructed us through a small door in a large building. Inside, yellow light spilled across a high-ceilinged workshop. Not seeing anyone, I gathered courage and walked further back. Dad followed.
I found my contact, a handful of other men, and a dog in a modest meeting room near the back of this first room. They were just finishing up their discussion and began to introduce themselves.
Over the next few minutes, the guys wrapped up their side conversations. My contact, soon to be our guide, gathered his coat and got ready to show us around. Two other people showed up randomly, also hoping to get an impromptu tour – good timing on their part!
As we waited for our tour I looked up and around here at the back of the first room. Newer banners and signs were juxtaposed with what I can only imagine was original signage from the time that the place served regular train service.
Our guide was ready to start our tour. He mentioned that the boards laying on the floor near us were departure boards used in the old Terminal Tower train station, and were slated for restoration.
We moved under the old safety sign and stood sort of in the entryway to the next room, where our guide began to tell us about the building we were in. This was the historic B&O railroad roundhouse mentioned in the article I’d read. It was built with three layers of brick and designed to last 300 years. The wood used for the ceiling beams was durable locust. Especially looking back into the more well-lit first room you could see the stains on the beams from the diesel and steam trains over the years.
In the ceiling of the next room (the “round” part of the roundhouse), there were massive vents or “jacks” to ventilate smoke. I tried to imagine the place filled with the sounds of the big engines and clouded with smoke or steam.
This majestic building designed to last so long was not without problems, however. Our guide explained that stalls #11-15 on the far side had collapsed, and a few more stalls at that end were not currently usable.
Next began our tour of the cars sitting in the roundhouse. I recognized the worn, old-style Amtrak logo on the cars closest to us in the first two stalls. Indeed, our guide said, these were Amtrak kitchen cars from 1946. The society was restoring these cars and would be renting them back to Amtrak, as the company was experiencing a shortage of dining cars. I was impressed that this small preservation society had such close and friendly dealings with the passenger railroad giant!
Our guide told us that we could go inside one of these cars undergoing interior restoration. Of course I was interested, and climbed up the ladder that was pulled up to the outside of the car. Inside, stark work lights illuminated the progress so far, which was mostly demolition. Our guide had said the cars had been overhauled in the 1970s with some interesting color choices, and they would be restored to their 1946 design and colors. Indeed, a couple of the walls sported bright magenta paneling, a very 70’s choice.
We politely shuffled past each other to look around and then to make our way off this car single file.
Behind kitchen car #2 sat some sort of diesel locomotive. Our guide didn’t talk about it, but I snapped a photo anyway.
Next on our tour was the society’s pride and joy, steam locomotive 4070. I had not, at least in recent memory, been so close to a steam locomotive. They are huge!
Our guide told us a bit of the history of this great machine. It was built in 1918 and acquired by the society in 1966. They bought it for just $1, since its frame was cracked and it needed other major repairs. This, he said, was not even a large locomotive! Its firebox was 480 square feet, while larger ones have fireboxes where you could serve dinner for eight (a strange mental picture!) The locomotive completely relied on steam for power, so if you wanted to, say, turn on the lights, you would have to build the fire and get the steam going first.
After performing on many tours and fan trips, 4070 was due for a major overhaul, which was recently begun. That explained the parts laid out next to the engine. Letter markings on the sections of its body would tell the volunteers how to put the locomotive back together after the renovation.
We were allowed to walk back alongside the engine. I marveled at its scale the whole time. Spiny rivets covered the firebox area – these helped deal with the pressure and heat generated by the fire.
The cab, near the back of the machine, proudly sported a big “4070.”
Walking back up towards the front, dad posed me for a photo to show the scale of the locomotive’s wheels. It took a couple of tries and still turned out a bit blurry since the roundhouse was so dimly lit.
As a group we walked around to the far side of the locomotive. We’d reached the furthest working stall in the roundhouse.
Here, parts from and for the locomotive were carefully laid out next to her, including a huge auger for delivering the coal from the tender to the firebox.
A random car number plate rested against the far wall. Funny, it looked like the numbers had been changed. I don’t know which car this was from.
We turned around and walked past the locomotive and the Amtrak cars back into the first room. Our guide told us a bit about the building’s previous use – at one time 400 employees staffed this facility. He also pointed out the original wood block floor, softer and safer than the alternatives.
I noticed the society’s to do list on a chalkboard and wished I could come learn and help with these tasks.
We ran into a couple of the guys from the meeting who hadn’t yet departed as we made our way towards the door to take a look at the collection outdoors. Guide pointed out the shop area full of machines. They didn’t just restore trains, he explained, they also restored the old machines that were made to work on parts for that equipment. It made sense that old train parts might not be able to be repaired by newer machines, but I’d never thought about that need before!
We made our way out into the cold. The other, smaller building on the property, our guide said, used to be used for storage. We didn’t go inside though I was curious about it.
A couple of rows of train cars sat on the society’s tracks, and we headed to them. On the far side, just off their property but not divided by fence or other barrier, was a CSX freight yard. These gray, uniform, modern freight cars looked so dull next to the society’s colorful collection. In the middle of our path sat a trackmobile (it can maneuver on both ground and railroad track) branded with the society’s logo.
I snapped photos as we began to walk in between the rows of cars. One of the first was marked in big letters “Do not hump.” While this made me giggle, I knew what it meant: some types of freight yards use a small hill, or “hump” to assist with sorting rail cars. The cars are pulled up to the hump all together as a long train, then separated and sorted onto different tracks by destination. The non-powered freight cars gain momentum by traveling down the hump, allowing the process to go quickly. Our guide explained this clearly-labeled car was, unfortunately, humped. All of its windows were shattered by this improper maneuver and it was set to be scrapped until rescued by the society.
Across from the poor “Do not hump” car was a caboose marked “Chessie Systems.” This one, our guide said, was acquired by the society after it accidentally made its way into a river. These cars had such interesting and sad backstories!
Next in line with the caboose was another yellow car – this one a refrigerator car or “reefer.” This 1924 car relied on blocks of ice inside, rather than mechanical refrigeration, to keep its contents cold. Our guide popped open one of the doors so we could see inside. The thick walls, he said, were filled with horsehair which served as insulation.
Guide had us watch our step around a yellow-painted hatch in the ground. Sand, he said, would be put in this hatch, then elevated up to the hopper above us, then funneled into freight cars that would carry it.
As we moved further through the cars, I looked back to where we’d come from. The walk between the cars was both claustrophobic and cosy – I think we managed to avoid some wind by being shielded by the big rail cars.
I noticed and wondered about little details on the cars as we passed by.
At the end of the row of cars, our guide stopped to let us on one of the cars. I stepped up the tall stairs, joking that I was too short for this and remembering safety tips to keep my balance.
This car, named Mount Baxter, was a Pullman car built in 1924. As we walked through, our guide pointed out the features of this luxury sleeper car. Some of the booths were set up as seats, while others were made up as beds. There were pockets in the curtains surrounding the sleeping quarters. Our guide told us you could put your shoes in the pocket and they’d be shined by the porter before you woke in the morning. The porter was certainly kept busy overnight, he also had the task of shuttling the car’s one ladder to anyone who needed it to climb down from the top bunk.
During the day, the porter could bring a table if you wanted to play cards.
I looked out the window to the car across the way as we walked through the length of the car.
Restrooms were about in the middle of the car, which seemed to go on forever. The strange part was that there were two separate sinks. Apparently in the day that this was built, it was considered unsanitary to drink our of the same sink where you washed your hands. So the washing sink had a stubby, little faucet close to the back of the bowl of the sink to prevent drinking, while the smaller drinking sink had a long, graceful faucet. How interesting!
In the corridor we passed a control panel that told the porter which seating section had rang for him. It must have been a bit overwhelming to be that porter.
The very back of the car contained a beautiful lounge. It looked quite comfy. Guide told us that originally, the back portion of this was open-air. However, the wealthier clientele who rode this train disliked having their hair mussed in the wind and their skin soiled by debris from the steam engine, so it was enclosed soon and became simply an observation lounge.
I looked all around, noticing the plaque remembering a member who worked on the car’s restoration. I also tried to imagine the car speeding through fields and trees in spring, much different than the bleak view outside today.
Apparently this and another couple of cars owned by the society take passenger trips once in a while, and some are also loaned out to other railroads for excursions. This kind of long-distance scenic travel was expensive, I know, but I hope to go on one someday.
We walked back through the Mt. Baxter and exited the same way we came in, stepping carefully down the stairs. We entered the car directly next to where we were, this one named Nickel Plate Road. Built in 1932, it had regular coach seats rather than sleeping compartments. This car held up surprisingly well on its own – everything except the paint was original inside, our guide told us.
Before too long we emerged from the Nickel Plate Road and came out from between the two rows of cars where we’d been walking. I snapped a photo of a rickety old wagon or cart on the tracks, coupled to the end of one of the cars.
In front of us was the turntable that serves the roundhouse, and further track with more cars stored on it. The turntable was operational, our guide said, however, its drain had recently become clogged and that needed to be fixed. Looking down in it, we could see a sheet of ice.
We walked a few feet past the turntable. Our guide pointed out where the section of the roundhouse was lost. To the far left was the section we had been in before, to the right of that was a section that had partially collapsed then been structurally stabilized, and to the right of that the building was missing completely. You could tell where the gap was because another structure sat to the right of that. Guide told us the roundhouse used to touch that structure, and I was able to see there really was a gaping hole there.
Our guide described the cars on the tracks farther from us us. The big, greenish one was another Pullman car. But this one had a creepy past: 28 people had died when it was involved in a wreck. Recently, a television show about haunted vehicles had come to shoot an episode in this car. According to these ghost hunters, the train car is haunted!
On the second track there were many other cars, including an old wooden caboose from 1892. That one was in pretty bad shape, but was slated for restoration.
Our guide started wrapping up the tour, as it was getting cold outside and we’d been standing in snow. As we began our walk back to the roundhouse, he pointed out a few other cars we’d not talked about, including a B&O sand-carrying car.
We walked back through the cars we’d been in and I absorbed what I knew would be my last moments with these train cars, at least on this visit.
We spent a few minutes warming up in the roundhouse and saying goodbyes. I asked our guide if he knew people in railroading in the New York area. He hadn’t visited recently, but told me that when he travels he does try to network with similar organizations and working railroads. I promised to visit the society again when I was in town, hopefully in warmer weather, and to keep in touch electronically. Dad and I gave our thanks and set off on our way, leaving the other tour participants to talk with our guide about volunteering opportunities. It was great to see this place I joined on a whim, and I do definitely hope to go back!