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Frank Gray

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Historic 765 train has money-making power

Last month, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society announced that in October its 765 locomotive, a gigantic, old-fashioned, coal-fired steam locomotive, would be making two excursions from Fort Wayne to Lafayette and back – a 230-mile trip.

The 1,200 or so tickets available would go on sale Sept. 1, but they wouldn’t be cheap. They’d cost from $89 to $119 each.

Nobody was too concerned the tickets wouldn’t sell, though. The 765 travels all over the Midwest, as far east as Pennsylvania and West Virginia and as far west as St. Louis and Iowa, and it is always sold out.

“Since we’ve been operating public trips, they’ve all been complete sellouts, especially those lately,” said Kelly Lynch, a member of the railroad society. “It’s consistent, wildly consistent. It’s a promise, every time you fire the engine up.”

The train draws crowds, too. Recently, at an excursion starting in Cleveland, 20,000 people showed up just to see the locomotive, not counting the people with tickets and the several hundred people who were on a waiting list for tickets.

In Owasso, Mich., 30,000 showed up to see the engine and early 20th century passenger cars, and 40,000 showed up to see it in Davenport, Iowa.

In one small Ohio town, when word got out the train would be stopping there, the schools closed for the morning so students could see it.

“It’s a 400-ton people magnet,” Lynch said of the locomotive. “Even when it’s standing still, being worked on, it attracts a crowd.”

I wondered, though, how did ticket sales go for the October trips for the city? Usually, tickets for the train’s excursions sell out in a couple of days.

Well, in Fort Wayne, tickets went on sale Sunday and sold out in an hour and a half.

Four hundred people are on a waiting list if more cars are added to the train. Passengers include people from as far away as Florida, Texas and New Jersey.

Right now, there’s some talk of running excursions to Chicago and other cities next year.

One inconvenient aspect, though, is that there is no suitable boarding spot in Fort Wayne. For the October excursions, for example, passengers will have to board at the Do it Best headquarters between Fort Wayne and New Haven.

There is a push to establish a home for the train near downtown Fort Wayne, possibly using some of the Legacy money. The train would have access to all possible routes.

The train, after all, is permitted to use all 22,000 miles of Norfolk-Southern track.

The problem is that creating a new base for the train would be expensive, upward of $15 million.

I’ve spoken to people about the train’s potential in the past, but a lot of people tend to brush it off as a novelty.

That bugs me.

Old-fashioned railroad operations attract huge crowds. There’s a little railroad in Strassburg, Pa., that runs 45-minute trips on a route that goes out 4 1/2 miles and back. It attracts 350,000 people a year, according to officials with that operation.

The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society has other engines in addition to the behemoth 765 that could do the same thing here.

So it’s disappointing that some people don’t take the train too seriously.

The community doesn’t seem to realize what it has, sort of like the woman who brought her $20 table to “Antiques Roadshow” and found out it was worth $450,000.

Fort Wayne is always looking for new ideas that will draw people into the city and get them to stay in the hotels and eat in the restaurants and see the sights.

This train is unique, and it’s proved its ability to draw crowds.

“We have an amazing zoo,” Lynch said. The train, he said, “is like having the last tyrannosaurus rex and no zoo to put it in.”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.