Full Steam Ahead

A rare steam engine may soon make its way downtown.
8/1/2015
Lynette Fager
Steve Vorderman

Standing next to the Berkshire Engine No. 765 is like standing next to the Millennium Falcon. Surrounded by other engines, train cars, and even a caboose in a warehouse that bares the aroma of grease and coal, the 765 paints an impressive picture. It’s huge. It’s powerful. It’s sleek. And it’s very, very rare. 

You don’t start it by turning a key, you don’t keep it running by adding diesel. This incredible machine runs on massive amounts of coal. It’s so big, it takes two people to operate: an engineer and a fireman. It doesn’t require computers and microchips; it is gages and valves that make the 765 run. There is something almost intimidating about seeing this massive steam engine in person and knowing that every piece of this engineering marvel was created and assembled by human sweat and muscle.

The 765 is an engineering masterpiece and it calls Fort Wayne home. 

Originally built in 1944, the 765 was one of only 80 Berkshire steam locomotives built and is one of only five left today. During its career peak, it traveled from Chicago to Buffalo, with regular trips through Fort Wayne. Though the train was beneficial to the community, it was a nightmare for traffic as the railroad traveled along Superior Street, blocking every cross street through downtown. In 1953, the city began the process of elevating the tracks to improve traffic flow, a process that took nearly three decades. 

The elevation process offered a huge improvement to traffic flow, but it wasn’t the only change taking place in the railroad industry. As time went by, steam engines became less popular. The 765 had less and less work to do as diesel engines took over, and in 1958 the 765 was officially retired. 

But the 765’s proud career wasn’t over. In the 1970s, a group of train enthusiasts began the grueling process of restoring the 765. They painstakingly took apart literally every piece of the 765 and put the whole thing back together again. The rebuild took 13,000 volunteer hours over the course of a decade and cost $772,000, but it was worth it. For example, as just part of its second career, the 765 has led the 21st Century Steam program since 2012, operating sold-out trips throughout the Midwest. 

“In the last 10 years, the success and draw of the 765 have been proven several times over. A question we’ve asked ourselves is how do we not only sustain the operation of the locomotive, but how do we bring its success to the city that saved it,” says Kelly Lynch, communications director for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society. 

Currently, this piece of railroading history resides in New Haven, but the hope is that soon the 765 will move to Headwaters Junction in downtown Fort Wayne. 

“While we can operate a handful of trips throughout the year around the country, the engine’s potential as a tourist draw is still only realized maybe 30 to 40 percent of the year. Our facility in New Haven is like Santa’s workshop, but what we really need is a showroom to enhance our programming and outreach,” says Lynch. “What if a vintage train could take you to the riverfront or the zoo? What if you could walk down Harrison Street and climb on a wine train or have your wedding in this gorgeous, turn-of-the-century styled roundhouse? What if the thousands of visitors and passengers we have could enjoy these trains but also downtown?”

Part museum, part attraction, part workshop, Headwaters Junction will be yet another gem in the downtown crown and will be a mecca for railroad enthusiasts. 

Based on suggestions by the SWA Group, the City of Fort Wayne’s riverfront consultant, and on the vision of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society (FWRHS), the idea is to incorporate Headwaters Junction into the master plan for the 700 acres of downtown riverfront. 

According to the Headwaters Junction website (headwatersjunction.com), the vision for Headwaters Junction includes a recreated roundhouse, a once-common structure in Fort Wayne that served many of the community’s railroads. The roundhouse would be used to restore and maintain historic equipment and would include a turntable, small railroad yard and interpretive facility for display and exhibition.

The FWRHS would use Headwaters Junction to expand its present operations, events and annual programming. That programming includes seasonal tourist trains, chartered trips, river tours and conventions, as well as the already famous Santa Train and other holiday events.  

But Headwaters Junction won’t just be a pretty venue. Old trains mean big business. Preliminary studies estimated that Headwaters Junction would draw an additional 100,000+ visitors annually to downtown Fort Wayne. According to numbers from Visit Fort Wayne, that means an additional $9 million invested in the local economy. 

“We were honored that the consultants continuously advocated for authentic, sustainable development and felt that Headwaters Junction would really bring the riverfront to life, even in the winter months,” says Lynch. “You can’t get more authentic than the 765. This machine creates incredible emotional experiences wherever it turns a wheel, and that is a major factor in attracting and retaining talent and enhancing a city’s quality of life.”


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