Now that I’m into infrastructure, I try to research related things to do wherever my travels take me. When I worked on planning a trip to Fort Wayne, Indiana, months ago I vaguely remembered stumbling upon the rather impressive web presence for Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society. I didn’t think about it much between then and the trip, but once my family and I arrived in the state, I was reminded to look them up again.
I had forgotten about the place so much that I hadn’t even remembered to bring my camera on this trip (therefore this post features lower-quality camera phone photos). After a fun night of celebrating a cousin’s wedding and a midmorning brunch the next day, my parents and I checked out of our hotel room. I asked if we could make a stop at the society on our way back.
My parents agreed and I brought up the address on my smartphone GPS. We crossed over some railroad tracks to get there – not an uncommon occurrence when driving in Indiana! On a long, straight road we spied the sign for the place. Even at first sight, it reminded me so much of the Midwest Railway Preservation Society. Just like with our excursion there, we slowly drove into the gravel driveway (since it was summer now, no snow to worry about though!) and parked in a clearing outside a big, barnlike structure.
We got out of the car and I timidly walked through an open door into the shop at my parents’ encouragement. My New York self was worried, as if someone was going to come shoo me away for trespassing. But this was Indiana, and these were kindred train spirits, so my logical brain knew I had little to worry about. “Hello?” I timidly called out.
We stepped a few more feet in and we could hear men’s voices coming from further back in the barn. One spoke up, “feel free to look around!” Again, this was such a different attitude than at some overprotective and lawsuit-conscious places I’d visited before. No telling us to stay on the path and not stray from the group here! One of the men excused himself from his conversation and came to greet us. He became our impromptu tour guide for the next little while.
One of the first things he showed us was the organization’s pride and joy, steam engine 765. I was again reminded of MRPS and their engine 4080. As we walked alongside the engine, a thick smell of grease filled the air and our nostrils.
765 was born in 1944 in Lima, Ohio, our guide said, “so she was a war baby.” After she was retired from service, she sat idle as a monument in downtown Fort Wayne. In 1975, the organization formed and rescued 765, and she was restored to operating condition. Our guide explained that steam engines had to be rebuilt fairly often, and this one was undergoing that process now. He pointed out places where parts had been removed for repair or cleaning, and as if to prove that fact, another man drove a forklift by carrying one of her heavy crossbeams.
As we walked along the far side of the barn, we got a beautiful view of the front of 765. Light flowed in through the open shop doors, right on the engine’s face. The scale and presence of these powerful machines close up will never lose its magic for me.
As we rounded the side of 765 and kept listening to our guide, I also took note of another wooden caboose (this one in not-as-shiny shape) and a diesel engine outside. There were so many things to look at and listen to!
Our guide pointed out more of the great engine’s mechanics, and my parents asked a few questions. I mostly stood in awe, other than, when prompted, telling our guide that we’d visited MRPS recently. He knew of this organization and its work a bit.
There was a set of steps pulled up to this far side of 765, and our guide prompted us to go up and take a look. I was excited – I couldn’t recall ever being in the cab of a steam engine before, or at least not a working one! Guide gave us a beginner’s intro about the principles and operations of a steam locomotive. In this one, the engineer sat on the right and the fireman on the left, both facing front. Each had a whole bay full of levers, nozzles and gauges, and our guide explained what some of those did in general terms.
Inside the cab was a strange mixture of this old equipment and a few pieces of newer machinery. Guide explained that the communication systems, speedometer, and cab signal receiver had to be upgraded, and that since they ran trips on mainline track with this engine it had to follow modern FRA regulations.
Behind us was a giant tender that looked like it was full to the brim with coal (it was too dark to get a picture of). Guide described how the movement of the auger brought the coal from the tender, underneath the floor we stood on, and into the firebox in front of us. He opened the doors to the firebox and talked about the importance of tending the fire. When we climbed back down the ladder we got a better look at the tender. Guide described the architecture of the separate interior portions that would be filled with coal and water to make the steam.
I marveled at the steam technology which I’d just gotten a crash course in. We headed out the big barn door closer to where we’d come in, and I noticed all of the tools and parts stored against the wall.
Outside we could see many more train cars on all sides of us. Guide pointed out a secondary, smaller, steam engine at the end of a row of cars. This one was much easier to fire up and keep maintained, since it was so much smaller, he said. The cab for it was currently being used as a storage shed outside.
During the Christmas season, guide told us, the organization puts together all of their restored cabooses and runs a “caboose train” along their short stretch of track. At the end of the ride, children can see Santa and get a treat. Holidays and trains always seem to go hand-in-hand, and I know of a few other, similar organizations that offer Santa-themed train rides. I was happy to hear this was a tradition at this place too.
I recognized the old Amtrak color scheme on a car on the far track. Without me even asking, guide told us that this was an old Amtrak hospital car.
The row of three matching cars farther down the line were Mid-America cars that didn’t belong to the organization, but were on loan. Guide described special trips that they organized occasionally, sometimes with borrowed equipment, including one for Norfolk Southern employees commemorating a milestone anniversary in the company’s history.
Closer to us on the same track was what he described as a wreck crane. It was pretty intimidating-looking!
We started to mosey our way back to the barn. Guide told us that the tracks we looked at used to be almost completely clear (and usable for running short trips!) It sounded like the society sometimes felt like a home for unloved old trains, and that their adoptions of these had filled up the tracks over time, for better or worse. I was fascinated by the range of equipment they had, but also knew that space and time for restoration is always an issue for these types of organizations.
The last car we passed was a bright blue, standard-looking diesel locomotive. I thought guide said that this was an F7 that had been converted to its current look, but something in that process hadn’t worked well so it wasn’t really usable. Could that be? I don’t know diesel equipment at all.
One of the other men was driving the forklift around again, so we headed into the barn to get out of his way. Guide told us he’d try to find us some brochures. He was gone for a couple of minutes and came back with a few sheets of paper for us.
We thanked him sincerely for the impromptu tour, and promised to send our Indiana relatives to see the fine organization as well as return ourselves if we were ever in the area again. I couldn’t believe our quick tour was over already. After rubbing our feet on the ground to get any stray grease off our shoes, we piled back into the car.
Wait! I said before we pulled out of the driveway. I want to get pictures of their signs! Dad stopped and I snapped a couple of quick photos of the signs near their entrance. When I got back in the car, I assigned my phone her next duty: to guide us “home” to Cleveland, Ohio, where I’d stay with my parents for a few days.
As we got on our way I read my flyer and thought again what impressive marketing materials the society has. I was thankful for our guide making time for us with no notice, and thankful to my parents for humoring me by making the detour, though I think they ended up enjoying it too! I hope to stay in touch or reconnect at some point with these fine folks in Fort Wayne.