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Our Very Own Polar Express

In the last three years of publicly advocating for Headwaters Junction, I’ve made trips to a variety of railroad-related attractions throughout the country to see how the most popular and successful tourist railroads and attractions do what they do. Prior visits had been to the Strasburg Railroad, which grabs 400,000 riders a year, Tennessee Valley Railroad, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. In the not too distant future I’ll be visiting one of the most compelling templates for Headwaters Junction: Santa Fe Railyards — a redevelopment district with shops, cultural centers, parks, trails, river access, all with an operating tourist railroad right in the middle. Sounds familiar:


Sacramento has been high on my list, not just because of the presence the California State Railroad Museum (well attended with 600,000 visitors annually) but for their expansive waterfront development along Old Sacramento (a tourist attraction that includes part of the original downtown, with new buildings made to look like they’re original) and the combination of river, rail, and trail development, with all three running side by side. Another reason for visiting was the city’s next redevelopment project, the aptly named Railyards, an urban infill effort that’s reclaiming 240 acres of brownfield, in a site that is “equivalent in size to the existing downtown central business district and holds significant historical and cultural importance to Sacramento. The project features the preservation and partial reuse of the “Central Shops” buildings originally used for railroad maintenance. One of the Central Shops will be refitted into a public marketplace. A railroad museum and a performing arts center is also planned.”

Like the river, 240 acres is much bigger than North River’s 30 acres or the adjoining riverfront, but the effort is the same: capitalize on what made you, don’t create what you aren’t.

One of the common questions about Headwaters Junction has been whether anything else exists like it in the world. While it’s easy to say that something that remains an idea is totally unique in every respect, it’s a lot like pitching components of proven, familiar efforts. Many cities may have a cultural district, a riverfront, a train or train related building, but it is rare they are woven together into one experience. Sacramento is a great example of an one-stop package, but I found myself wanting more. Granted, I was there before tourist season hit, and it was incredible just to walk around, but the question repeated in my mind: “Is there anything else out there like what you imagine this being?” And I feel more confident in my answer.

One of the perception battles has been whether or not HWJ is a “museum.” Those who decry “museums” are probably saying more about themselves than any about of the best “museums” out there, but I understand the concern. The word museum unfortunately communicates “static” or “passive.” Something that the museum in Sacramento does right away is literally pull back the curtains in the screening room where visitors gather to watch a film before beginning their tour. The screen rises to reveal a wall-size window into a scene set up in the museum — exactly the type of PT Barnum and shock-and-awe sensibilities I subscribe to coming from the film and performance worlds. The packed room of visiting students ate it up. And it left me wanting more.

While taking a side trip down the American River Bike Trail I sought out two railroad relics that had been donated to Sacramento’s rail preservation many years ago. Like in Fort Wayne, when railroads looked to decommission their steam locomotives, cities often wound up with brand new park displays or monuments. Though the museum has gorgeously preserved railroad equipment indoors and operates tourist trains with vintage equipment in partnership with the nearby railroad, there are two steam locomotives awaiting some significant TLC a quarter mile from the museum (and they likely will find a home in the aforementioned Railyards project and a Railroad Technology Museum.)

To the observer, they are rusted, vandalized hulks. To someone like me, they are untapped potential, but also offer another perspective on the machine that inspired this vision for North River. Only a handful of cities like Fort Wayne can lay claim to having their own steam engine — especially one that runs and can draw 40,000 people to a town in one weekend.

The fate of many locomotives left to the elements, though this one is in good hands.

Fort Wayne’s engine, no. 765, was removed from Lawton Park to avoid the fate that these engines had endured for the last few decades. As I photographed them, one of the many friendly trail users (that’s him walking away in the image above) stopped and said “Pretty cool engines, aren’t they? Reminds me of the Polar Express.”

As he left, I thought to myself “we may not have the riverfront – yet, or the redeveloped property with a unique attraction – yet, but Fort Wayne already has the Polar Express.”

Fort Wayne’s ambassador, doin’ it up.

All it needs is the North Pole — and something like North River would do.

4th and Clinton and everywhere in between.

So, in answer to that question “is there anything out there like this idea?” I can validate my reply better than ever: No. Not yet. There are glimmers elsewhere like in Sacramento, Santa Fe or at the New York High Line, but Headwaters Junction is ours for the making. Seeing Fort Wayne’s name among cities like New York, Sacramento, Chattanooga,  and Santa Fe as places that have capitalized on who they are would be pretty stellar.

Fort Wayne needs more PT Barnums who can channel their love of this city into something everyone can enjoy. So, strike up the band and remember, we have our own Polar Express.

-Kelly Lynch

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