On October 4th, 1955 the Nickel Plate Road opened a two-track overpass that elevated its busy rails above city streets and unleashed city development northward. Breaking the ribbon on that day was a Berkshire-type steam locomotive, no. 767.
The 80 fast freight Berkshire-type steam locomotives constructed for the Nickel Plate Road earned the company a reputation for “High Speed Freight Service” that rivaled larger competitors. So renown were the Berkshires that their eventual retirement in 1958 was front page news in Fort Wayne, where the News Sentinel proclaimed:
“the massive Berkshires have always been special pets of Fort Wayne. [They] carved an enviable reputation in railroad history [and were] the most colorful engines in this part of the country. On the Nickel Plate they were just as economical as diesel power, [but] the Berkshires are giving up in the inevitable face of progress.”
Though mothballed, the locomotives were stored serviceable and no. 765, a favorite engine of local crews, was kept indoors as others deteriorated outside. When the city requested a Berkshire locomotive for display in 1961, no. 765 was a prime candidate due to its condition and preservation by the railroad.
No. 765 was ceremoniously renumbered after the 767 and installed in Lawton Park as a monument to the Elevate the Nickel Plate project. As the plaque that adorned the locomotive tender explained, the locomotive also represented a great period of development in our country – the age of steam railroading. After a decade of exposure to the elements, the locomotive began to seriously deteriorate and in 1972 the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society was formed to preserve it.
15 feet tall, 404 tons, and capable of speeds in excess of 60 miles an hour, the locomotive was removed from the park in 1974, given back its original number and restored to operation by the society’s all volunteer crew over a period of 5 years. In 1979, the organization became the first all volunteer non-profit in the world to restore and operate a mainline steam locomotive, marking the beginning of a celebrated career pulling passenger excursions throughout the country.
One of only a handful of operating steam locomotives in the country, no. 765 is presently the largest steam locomotive operating east of the Mississippi and only one of five that operate regularly on mainline railroads.
The society has produced hundreds of successful excursions and exhibitions since returning life to the 765, raising millions in fundraising efforts, spearheading dozens of revenue generating historic preservation projects and with over a quarter million passengers served the organization has covered 54,000 miles through fifteen states with the 765. Though statistics are impressive, it is the dramatic sensory experience the 765 provides for the public that instantly transporting onlookers to another time.
Between 2001 and 2005, the society endeavored upon one of the most extensive restorations in the rail preservation industry, returning the engine to as-built condition. In 2009, 50,000 people rode behind or experienced the renewed locomotive and its passenger train in sixteen days alone.
The society owns and maintains a collection of historic locomotives and equipment from the city’s past and as no. 765 returns to the mainline again each year, the organization continues the work that Fort Wayne once performed for over a century, reliving the city’s history through excursions, interpretive displays, artifact restoration, and educational outreach.
The collection of the FWRHS is maintained in a modest shop facility east of New Haven, Indiana – largely out of the public eye. Though the passenger excursion industry continues to allow the 765 to reach the public a handful of days every year, the locomotive and the collection do not have a permanent home or a rail line where they can be exhibited, operated, or enjoyed by the public throughout the year. Only an elevated, fully accessible home to the public can guarantee its future.
No. 765 is a unique entity – a roving tourist attraction with worldwide appeal and a living time machine that has always called Fort Wayne home. As a result of its location, the 765‘s operations and presence often remain concealed, despite its immense local heritage, public career, and incredible potential.