People used to view Fort Wayne’s three rivers as flood hazards and little more than large drainage ditches. Forward-thinking and cleanup have transformed them into focal points for downtown revitalization and local economic development.
Some believe the same can be done with the Summit City’s rich railroad heritage.
From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, rail lines with names such as the Pennsylvania Railroad, Nickel Plate Road, Wabash Railroad and Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad rolled through the city. People climbing “All aboard!” could travel almost anywhere in the country. The vast Pennsylvania Railroad shops complex east of downtown once employed hundreds of skilled craftsmen in designing, building and maintaining locomotives and train cars.
Today, you still hear the bellowing horns and clickety-clack, clickety-clack of freight trains passing through the city. The last regular passenger train, however, pulled away from Baker Street Station in November 1990.
Three separate efforts now are chugging toward reviving Fort Wayne’s passenger rail service and rail heritage.
Baker Street Station
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Baker Street Station’s reopening after nearly facing the wrecking ball.
Built in 1914, the grand, Arts and Crafts-style building at Baker and Harrison streets served as Pennsylvania Railroad passengers’ gateway to destinations near and far. People passing through its doors included commuters, families departing on vacations and military personnel going off to war. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and then-presidential candidates Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon all made brief stops at the station.
Following World War II, the popularity of cars and driving steadily eroded the number of people traveling by train. After the last passenger train left in 1990, Baker Street Station became vacant and fell victim to vandalism and lack of maintenance, wrote local railroad historian Walter B. “Skip” Sassmannshausen Jr. in the book The Pennsylvania Railroad Station on Baker Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana: The Story of Service & Survival.
Victor Martin, a train buff and principal in local architectural and engineering firm MartinRiley, led an effort by the firm’s leaders to form a company, buy the station in 1996 and restore it, said Jack Daniel, a current principal at MartinRiley. Martin, who died this past March, also set up the nonprofit Baker Street Station Community Association in 1999 to manage the building’s center concourse for public use. The association played a key role in restoration by assisting with applications for several funding grants, said Daniel, an association board member. MartinRiley’s offices have occupied part of Baker Street Station since late 1996. The concourse now bustles again with people attending events, weddings and receptions.
“It is a place for people to meet and build memories,” said Daniel. “In the spirit of community, here’s a living example, and it has 25 years of history.”
If passenger rail service resumes here, Baker Street Station stands ready to welcome passengers and send them on their journeys.
Amtrak, the last passenger rail provider serving Fort Wayne, abandoned the city in 1990 and moved its nearest stop to Waterloo in DeKalb County. Area officials started work soon afterward to return passenger rail service to the Summit City. New opportunities make them optimistic about the future.
The efforts to return passenger rail service began at the Northeastern Indiana Regional Coordinating Council (NIRCC), said Geoff Paddock, who then was a new member of the NIRCC board of directors. NIRCC focuses on the region’s current and future transportation needs.
“What we found, not withstanding Waterloo, was there is an untapped market if service is provided in Fort Wayne,” said Paddock, a passenger rail advocate and the 5th District representative on Fort Wayne’s City Council. NIRCC’s efforts stalled out in the early 2000s, however.
Since 2009, the nonprofit Northern Indiana Passenger Rail Association (NIPRA) has led the push for passenger rail service in northeast Indiana. NIPRA members propose adding a passenger rail route from Chicago to Columbus, Ohio. The plan would include stops at Baker Street Station in Fort Wayne and in Gary, Valparaiso, Plymouth and Warsaw. Ohio stops would include Lima, Kenton, Marysville, Columbus and Columbus International Airport.
The effort has received support from local government bodies along the route, said Paddock and Daniel, both of whom serve on the NIPRA board of directors. They say passenger rail benefits include:
- Providing timely, reliable and affordable transportation that is accessible to people of all economic groups.
- Allowing business people and other travelers to work on laptops and use cellphones en route to destinations.
- Offering enough space to accommodate social distancing, including by adding extra train cars.
- Reducing the number of people driving vehicles on the congested U.S. 30 corridor. Being part of a visitor experience could boost tourism here.
Funding for passenger rail projects could be included if Congress passes the infrastructure improvement plan proposed by President Joe Biden, said Paddock and Daniel. Work to make passenger rail available from Chicago to Columbus, Ohio, could cost from $1 million to $3 million per mile, said Paddock. That price could seem more affordable to state transportation officials in Indiana and Ohio if the federal government will pay 80% of the cost.
NIPRA members also have been talking with the Indiana Department of Transportation’s railroad division about passenger rail service in northern Indiana, said Paddock and Daniel. In addition, NIPRA is working with Republican state Sen. Dennis Kruse of Auburn, who plans to introduce a bill in the next Indiana General Assembly to create a state passenger rail commission. If approved, the commission would promote the development and improvement of passenger rail service in Indiana. It also would produce an annual progress report, which NIPRA members believe will keep a spotlight on the need for passenger rail service in Indiana.
As of now, Indiana government hasn’t shown as much interest as other Midwest states in investing in rail transportation, said Paddock. “But I do have hope.”
A giant steam locomotive snorts and puffs smoke as it slowly chugs away from the downtown riverfront with carloads of happy passengers in tow. People also can get up close to historic train engines and rail cars, learn more about Fort Wayne’s railroad history or just enjoy coffee and ice cream at a vintage train depot.
That’s the vision for Headwaters Junction, the proposed railroad-themed attraction rolling ever closer to finding a home downtown.
The site will showcase historic locomotives and passenger cars restored by the all-volunteer Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, which currently operates from its property on Edgerton Road east of New Haven. The collection’s gem is Nickel Plate Road Engine No. 765, a 400-ton steam locomotive built in 1944 that once roared along railroad tracks in the Fort Wayne area and beyond.
Headwaters Junction will be even more authentic to Fort Wayne than attractions such as the Old Fort, said Kelly Lynch, the nonprofit organization’s volunteer executive director and vice president of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society. “The steam locomotive and all the passenger cars lived and worked in Fort Wayne,” said Lynch.
With total cost estimated at $15 million, Headwaters Junction will be completed in phases, said Lynch.
Work has begun on Phase I, a $1.1 million project to open a rail yard park on less than an acre of land at 1010 Cass Street. The location is on the north side of the St. Marys River, across from Promenade Park. When it opens next year, the site will feature the restored Craigville Depot, a small-town train depot built in 1879 that will house a shop serving coffee and ice cream. Visitors also can learn more about Headwaters Junction and its future phases. An adjacent, restored passenger rail car will function as a lounge car that also can be rented for private events.
Headwaters Junction hopes to announce details about purchasing nearby land for future growth early next year, said Lynch. Phase II will add a railroad roundhouse that serves as a rail interpretive center and as a historic preservation area for restored locomotives and rail cars. The final phase will launch a tourist railroad carrying visitors on the Santa Train and other excursions using the restored locomotives and passenger cars.
“We envision it (Headwaters Junction) doing for this neighborhood what Parkview Field did for Baker and Brackenridge (streets),” he said.
Headwaters Junction’s studies show it will attract about 120,000 people a year to downtown Fort Wayne, said Lynch. The project will produce about $60 million in economic impact during its construction phases and about $5 million to $7 million per year in economic impact once fully operational.
“We are a business with a product that’s in demand,” he added. “If we want to bring people downtown, that’s how we do it.”