PLEASANT LAKE, Ind. (WANE) – All aboard! This may not be the Polar Express, but the Indiana Fall Color Train Trip was a similar experience to those kids who took a steam-powered train up to the north pole in the classic film!
Riders gathered at Pleasant Lake, Indiana, on the morning of October 7th and 8th, ready to embark on a journey to and from Hillsdale, Michigan. What met their eyes was the historic Nickel Plate Road Steam Locomotive Number 765, looking just like when it was first built on September 8th, 1944.
Named Indiana’s ‘Best New Experience’ by the Indiana State Tourism office, the Indiana Fall Color Train Trip is part of the new Indiana Rail Experience program that’s in its second year and is operated in a partnership between the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society and the Indiana Northeastern Railway Company. Boarding a 1940s steam-powered passenger train for this experience is a rarity that people come from all over the world to be a part of. It has been called a bucket-list item and a once in a lifetime experience by passengers.
Built by Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio, the locomotive stands 15 feet tall, is 100 feet long, weighs 404 tons, can reach up to 80 mph, and is powered by 22 tons of coal and 22,000 gallons of water or more. Its final freight run was in 1958 before it was retired and donated to the City of Fort Wayne. After having sat in Lawton Park for many years, it was restored from 1974 to 1979 and again from 2000 to 2006. The ‘magnificent time machine’ is now as good as, if not better, than when it rolled out of the shops, thanks to the hard work of volunteers. It is actually run on excursions more now compared to when it was hauling freight.
Grant Geist is one of about six engineers qualified to run the locomotive. He has been a member of the Fort Wayne Railroad Society since the 1980s. The entire train is operated by volunteers and Geist says “It’s a team effort…there’s a lot of guys behind the scenes that are part of the crew that do the maintenance work on it, do the servicing work on the locomotive. The actual operation of the locomotive it only takes two of us…there’s an engineer on the right-hand side and there’s a fireman on the left-hand side. The fireman is actually the guy that’s responsible for keeping the water in the boiler and shoveling the coal into the firebox and making steam that the engineer uses to pull the train.” Geist has a blast driving the train and encourages everyone to volunteer. It does not cost a lot of money, but it takes a lot of time and you’ll get dirty.
The train took approximately three hours to travel from Pleasant Lake to Hillsdale. There was onboard entertainment, plus light appetizers and drink service available for first-class passengers. Once in Hillsdale, riders could shop at local businesses and eat at local restaurants.
The train offers passengers a variety of different accommodations. Ticket prices varied based on the accommodation selected. It cost $99 to ride in Open Air Class. “With its four open baggage doors, the John H. Emery allows passengers to experience the sights and sounds of historic steam railroading at speed.” It was $119 to board a Deluxe Coach. “Seating in the Collinsville Inn (No. 148), Franklin Inn (No. 142), or Norrisville Inn, (No. 147), these deluxe coaches feature reclining chairs, heating, and open vestibules.” It was $249 to ride in the First Class Silver Diner. “First-class accommodations in the Silver Diner, a 1950s dining car parlor car originally built for the California Zephyr and later upgraded and operated by Amtrak.” It cost between $249 and $829 to ride in the First Class Paul Revere Lounge. “First-class accommodations in the Paul Revere, a 1951 parlor car originally built for the Pennsylvania Railroad.” It was between $249 and $579 to ride in Woodland Stream First Class; this includes suite accommodations. “First-class accommodations aboard the Woodland Stream, a 1949 lounge car originally built for the New York Central Railroad.” And finally, it was a whopping $6,500 to be in the private car in the rear of the train. “Enjoy exclusive accommodations for a group of approximately 15 guests aboard the Roanoke, a private Pullman business car originally built for the Norfolk & Western.”
The return voyage took a similar amount of time, but there was a twist. There was a runby opportunity, where riders could exit the train and have the chance to see the train come by at full power. The train backed up and came by two times. A video of the experience and more sights and sounds of the train trip can be found below!
Two passengers, Don Fralick and Daniel Longenecker, had great things to say about the experience. Fralick, who used to watch fright trains go by like this one, says “You got to see this. You got to experience it, you got to ride on it, even the smell of the thing is just awesome.” Longenecker, riding for the first time, says “Definitely get out and try it. It’s a really unique experience…if you can come in dress, they love to see people dressed up like the period…highly recommend it.”
There were great views of the trees out the train windows all along the way. Unfortunately though, the drought conditions in place at the time and the warm start to October delayed the fall foliage, but there was still some to be found out the windows. Cooler and rainier conditions later in the month have since helped the colors become more vibrant.
Ultimately, the railroad historical society looks to continue to grow and expand train experiences like this one.
Kelly Lynch, Vice President of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, says “…going somewhere by train, riding behind a steam locomotive, being on this equipment from the golden era of rail transportation, is really evocative, it’s romantic, it’s special…we’re so happy to share it with as many people as we’ve been able to this year.” There have been over 40 operating days for the Indiana Rail Experience this year and over 12,000 tickets have been sold.
Lynch also adds, “In order to continue expanding this program…in order to increase our capacity and our ridership, we’re embarking on a two million dollar capital campaign to restore seven vintage passenger cars from the golden era of rail transportation. The more seats, the more cars, the more people, the more of the impact that these events will have and the more opportunities people will have to get to experience this incredible Indiana history.”
Next up for the Indiana Rail Experience is the Indiana Christmas Train, where you can board a diesel-powered train. The fall color trips and the Christmas train trips are the crescendo of the operating season. Other offerings earlier in the year by the program include white and whisky trains, ice cream trains, and even had a fundraiser train for the humane society (where people could bring their dogs onboard)!
To learn more about Nickel Plate Road Steam Locomotive Number 765, visit this link. To learn about volunteer opportunities, click here. And finally, to learn about the upcoming Indiana Christmas Train Trip, visit this link.