Originally published in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel:
“Big, bold, transformational.” These are the words used by community leaders and Legacy Fort Wayne to describe an idea to bring a world-famous train downtown. But what’s so bold and transformational about a train? Just about everything.
To commemorate the project that elevated the railroad along Superior Street in the post-World War II era, the city of Fort Wayne installed a massive steam locomotive in Lawton Park. In 1979, what was once a broken monument was restored to operation by a group of volunteers called the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society.
No one could have known it at the time, but steam locomotive No. 765 would become an international attraction operating passenger train excursions and appearing all over the country as a larger-than-life sensory experience, teaching tool and ambassador for the city of Fort Wayne.
No. 765 is a rolling Hollywood production, creating, as Walt Disney called it, “a happening” in every town it travels through. This is no ordinary history lesson. It’s an icon of Midwest industry and innovation. It is Fort Wayne incarnate.
Few cities can claim they have their own train, let alone one with a proven, 30-year following. No. 765 experienced 50,000 visitors from all 50 states and five countries in 16 days alone in 2011. The engine traveled more than 3,000 miles in 2012, where up to 3,000 people daily enjoyed the sights and sounds of our rocket ship on wheels.
But how can the success of this people-magnet help Fort Wayne?
Enter Headwaters Junction, an idea that has been endorsed and supported by a number of neighborhood and civic organizations for several years, thanks in no small part to the power of the train.
Recognized by the Legacy Fort Wayne initiative as a plan with “community support and catalytic potential,” Headwaters Junction is an effort to make mixed-use development along our riverfront unique, entertaining, educational and vibrant with the train.
With yearlong programming and events, and a railroad connecting other area attractions to downtown, Headwaters Junction is an opportunity for Fort Wayne to set itself apart from others in the Midwest with not just its offerings, but with its vision to embrace its own strengths, assets and identity.
Community plans for North River, the undeveloped former railroad yard and scrap site along Clinton Street and the St. Marys River, have long called for the site to eventually host some sort of regional attraction to complement mixed use along the riverfront. This can be that attraction.
For a city once so industrious and hyper-connected because of the railroad, it’s an attraction that’s authentic, with the capability to bring 100,000 or more visitors downtown every year.
The Legacy Fort Wayne initiative recognized the opportunity to include engine No. 765 and its vintage stablemates, which are stored in a facility east of New Haven when not in use, in initial studies for riverfront development.
What would it be like to have a dinner train downtown or our very own Polar Express? What could a 1944-built time machine and its thousands of visitors do in helping make downtown a destination?
Imagine a street car taking visitors to the zoo; shops, restaurants and river tours set against the dramatic, animated backdrop of the train and its environment; annual programming and events using the train as the centerpiece.
Just as you need not be a fan of baseball to enjoy an evening at Parkview Field, you need not be a student of history to be entranced by an attraction as versatile as the train. Just as a simple baseball game has helped bring the masses to discover downtown, this locomotive and its counterparts are our pied pipers waiting in the wings.
At our current facility east of New Haven, we’ve had visitors come and picnic in the grass just to watch us work on the train. When’s the last time you went back in time on your lunch break?
There is a reason this was one of the top three ideas in public voting and why it survived two years of deliberations on how to promote the “cultural, recreational, public and economic well-being of Fort Wayne,” and to help establish the city “as a place of pride and opportunity for all.”
This is not another strip mall. It’s not a museum. This is one-of-a-kind community potential, the kind the Legacy Fort Wayne initiative said “should not be overlooked.”
As City Council and the mayor’s office weigh development possibilities, tell them this train deserves to have a home where it can really benefit the city that preserved it.
It’s time to take it to the next step.
Tell them that, if we’re going to remake Fort Wayne, let’s do it in a way that actually says something about our city, in a way that sets us apart and inspires thousands along the way.
You’re welcome to stop in at 614 S. Harrison St. at 6 p.m. Thursday to hear a public presentation on Headwaters Junction.
Don’t let Fort Wayne miss the train