The Journal Gazette
Sunday, November 01, 2020 1:00 am

Railroad history project back on track

Headwaters Junction plans revisited


Headwaters Junction, a railroad-themed attraction proposed for downtown Fort Wayne, is getting back on track with a new idea for putting history on display.

Originally, the idea was to turn the North River property across Clinton Street from Science Central into a location for a restored engine roundhouse, locomotives and rolling stock, as well as a redone local depot.

Railroad right of way was purchased, and there was talk of train rides to and from the site as part of overall riverfront development.

But, as things progressed, that vision gave way when a city consultant's report did not envision it in the riverfront's future.

Then, in July the city agreed to assume a Headwaters purchase agreement of roughly one mile of railroad right of way.

And, although city officials committed to helping Headwaters Junction come to pass, the vision seemed to have vanished, or at least needed to change shape. 

But now, in a warehouse on the former Cassad Depot property in New Haven, a new Headwaters Junction plan is taking shape – in the form of a rare, early 1950s-vintage rail car being brought back to life.

The warehouse also holds the skeleton of a historic local train station under restoration – the former Craigville passenger depot.

The car is one of a handful of remaining hospital cars used around the time of the Korean War, said Don Steininger, who is guiding the rejuvenation effort. He sees a new use for the car, in conjunction with the depot, as a proposed Phase 1 of a refreshed Headwaters Junction attraction.

The proposed new location is near another redone railroad station on Cass Street, now home to Fort Wayne Outfitters, a business offering river-related rentals and merchandise. 

Steininger said the hospital car was used to ferry ill or wounded veterans returning to the United States to places nearer their homes than the port where they had landed. 

The vets hardly traveled in the lap of luxury, according to the Bowling Green Historic Railpark & Train Museum at the L&N Depot, a group that has worked on one of the hospital cars.

Crude bunk beds three-high lined the walls, and the cars only had a small kitchen, bathroom, isolation room and quarters for medical staff. After the war's end, the cars were decommissioned.

The one now inside the local warehouse became an Amtrak passenger car and was later sold to the state of Tennessee for a traveling attraction during the state's centennial celebration.

The car, which may have been an Amtrak crew car or a baggage car for a short period, ended up in storage in Owosso, Michigan, for 15 years until the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society acquired it, and two others like it, about nine years ago, Steininger said.

“It was in pretty rough shape,” Steininger said of the 85-foot-long mothballed car. Photos show it with rusted-out side walls and undercarriage problems, although wheels remained intact. A specialized welder was brought in to get the exterior of the car repaired, he said.

Inside the car, Steininger, a long-time Fort Wayne developer and member of the Allen County Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board, has been working to remove debris and frame the new use, which he sees as a venue for small-scale parties as well as a draw for visitors.

The car is being converted into a traditional 1950s club car, with a bench seat and table along one wall and room for other tables. Total seating would be about 34 people. Although there's no commercial kitchen planned, there would be enough room to have food catered, he said.

“It's being repurposed, not restored,” Steininger said of the car. “We wanted to recreate it as something that could be used as an income generator for Headwaters Junction.”

Steininger is president of the nonprofit group's board.

The work on the former Craigville depot is continuing in parallel. Plans for that, Steininger said, are as an ice cream shop with pastry and coffee offerings at the same site. 

Dating from 1879, the depot, technically the James R. Shields Depot, is on the National Register of Historic Places and requires accurate restoration down to decorative roofline corbels that needed to be re-created, he said.  

Steininger said he doesn't see the entire site as ready to open until October 2022.

Among hurdles are approval of a primary development plan, which is scheduled to have a public hearing before the Fort Wayne Plan Commission on Dec. 7. The group proposes buying a small piece of land now used as parking by Fort Wayne Outfitters and place the depot on part of the lot and the car on a short rail siding not yet built.

Steininger said the plan would also require developing more parking for the business, and discussions are underway.

A building moving company could transport the depot, while moving plans for the rail car remain under discussion, he said.

Phase 2 would acquire an already-agreed-upon site for a rail park and the roundhouse, and Phase 3 would take on development of a vintage tourist rail line, said Kelly Lynch, Headwaters Junction executive director and vice president of the railroad historical society.

He would not specify the Phase 2 site, but he said it was “within the downtown footprint.” An announcement probably won't come before next year, Lynch said.

Aspects of the phases would likely be done concurrently, he said. Phase 1 requires about $1 million, Phase 2 would require $5 million or $6 million and Phase 3 about $7 million, Lynch said.

Five or six years would be a probable timeline, he said, adding some money has been raised and fundraising would be stepped up. “There is excitement” around the plan, but “people have been waiting to see where this lands,” he said.

Steininger agreed the plan is doable. “It's just hard work,” he said.

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