Imagine a city having a Tyrannosaurus rex—a living dinosaur that shocked and amazed crowds whenever they brought it out.
Imagine they took it on annual tours of the country, and it sold out shows wherever it went.
Now imagine that when the T. rex wasn’t touring, it was sitting in a pole barn out of sight.
That’s the story of the historic Nickel Plate No. 765, says Kelly Lynch, Vice President of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society.
The 765 steam engine is 16-feet-tall.
As one of the last locomotives of its kind in the world, the 765 is a regal 1940s steam engine. It stands 16-feet-tall and attracts thousands of passengers to its excursions across the Midwest each year. But when it's off duty, it spends most of its days at a military depot in New Haven. Kelly Lynch
So Lynch, a 32-year old videographer and railroad enthusiast, is planning to bring the 765 and other historic trains back into northeast Indiana’s future. His project is a multi-purpose railyard park near downtown Fort Wayne called Headwaters Junction, and when it's complete, it will do more than house the 765.
The attraction will offer roundhouse tours, train rides, dining experiences, and, ultimately, a simple place for people in the community to gather, Lynch says.
His plan also includes putting a replica streetcar back into use to offer light-rail service to popular local destinations, such as Science Central, the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, and Parkview Field.
But it’s all still a work in progress.
For the past 10 years, Lynch has been working with city leaders to establish Headwaters Junction as part of the plans for riverfront development.
A rendering of the future Headwaters Junction near Science Central.
When the SWA Group conducted an analysis in 2013-2014, they encouraged city leaders to include the railyard park as a way to bring people to the riverfront during cold winter months.
“They envisioned it as a catalyst attraction that could help activate the riverfront year-round,” Lynch says.
A 2016 feasibility study for Headwaters Junction estimates the project could bring an additional 140,000 visitors to downtown Fort Wayne and generate $60 million in economic impact, attracting more than 15,000 visitors in winter months alone.
As such, Lynch's team is currently partnering with one of the four teams engaged in redeveloping the North River property, comprised of 29 acres bounded by Clinton, Fourth and Harrison Streets.
In addition to trains, the roundhouse will have amenities, like a restaurant or brewery.
But while plans for Headwaters Junction are moving forward, some elements of the project have made it more complicated to execute than your average development, Lynch says.
For instance, his team is currently negotiating railroad right-of-ways with Norfolk Southern Corporation.
Bringing rail service back to the Summit City requires working with national railroad companies and even laying some new tracks. But while the process is lengthy, it’s well worth the effort, Lynch says.
“One of my first memories is being on the 765,” he explains.
Headwaters Junction plans to bridge Fort Wayne's past and future with historic trains.
Growing up, he learned the history of trains in northeast Indiana as part of his family heritage.
His grandfather was a foreman at a roundhouse outside Chicago where he maintained a fleet of locomotives, and his father was a member of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, which helped restore the 765 in the 1970s.
After the historic engine went out of commercial use in the late 1950s, it was put on display in Lawton Park from 1963-1974.
Then the Society purchased it from the city and restored it, so it could enchant riders once again.
Elevating Fort Wayne's railroads in the 1950s changed the way downtown developed in the post-war era.
Since 1979, the 765 has welcomed passengers from all 50 states and several countries on its annual excursions. The Society also operates other trains, like the Santa Train, which attracts thousands of passengers each year, too.
Lynch says the success of these events gives him confidence that Headwaters Junction will also be a success.
He admits that the appeal of historic trains might seem mystifying to people who haven't seen them in person, but it usually only takes one encounter to change that.
“People say when the train came downtown for the Three Rivers Festival, they had tears in their eyes because it was so powerful and unusual,” Lynch says.
The 765 pulls into the LaSalle Street station in Chicago on one of its excursions.
Along with providing train buffs like himself a chance to enjoy the engine in a more scenic space, Headwaters Junction also offers something to people of all ages and interests.
Visitors could park their vehicles once at the roundhouse, and get something to eat or hang out, and then take trains into downtown or to other select locations.
“The idea is to make it possible to experience what Fort Wayne has to offer without getting in your car,” Lynch says.
And he's not the first person to come up with this idea.
Trains contribute to mass transit options in cities.
While Lynch has been working on his plan for Headwaters Junction since the mid-2000s, he discovered in 2012 that the original 720-acre masterplan for Headwaters Park designed by the world-renowned architect Eric Kuhne included both the 765 as well as a downtown streetcar system.
Passengers dress up for an excursion on the 765.
Upon realizing that he had the same idea as the park’s original planners, he was stunned.
“It made me realize I was not crazy,” Lynch says.
With the reassurance of history, he’s marched forward with his vision ever since, earning the support of community partners along the way, like developer Don Steiniger, who serves as Board Chairman for Headwaters Junction.
Each week, new enthusiasts keep Lynch excited about Headwater Junction's potential.
“I just met a guy from New York City who drove down to Fort Wayne to see the 765 on a Sunday night,” he says. “People are coming to see it in a barn. I’m saying, ‘Why don’t we bring it downtown?’”
Experience the 765
Visitors are encouraged to see the 765 for themselves at 15808 Edgerton Road in New Haven, or check the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s website for details on upcoming excursions.
The Society’s annual Open House is August 17-19, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with free admission and $5 diesel-powered train rides. The 765 will be on display with local food trucks and more. Online tickets will be available in July at fortwaynerailroad.org.