By the end of this weekend, nearly 5,000 passengers will have traveled to an industrial park east of New Haven to enjoy the Santa Train, a special holiday tradition operated by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society. Upon arriving at the organization’s modest restoration facility, new visitors generally say the same thing: "We never knew this existed."
Being one of northeast Indiana’s best-kept secrets hasn’t stopped the Santa Train from selling out in less than 24 hours for the third consecutive year. In the last two years, both hours and extra days have been added to accommodate demand. Before online ticketing was offered in the event’s 15-year history, the line to ride would commonly stretch to more than two hours long.
As the society’s world-famous steam engine No. 765 slumbers during winter maintenance, trips are operated with historic cabooses and a vintage diesel locomotive. These events are as popular as the organization’s yearly excursions with the beloved 765, which see visitors from all 50 states and five countries. While there are similar holiday rides in Michigan and central Indiana, the Santa Train attracts riders from across northern Indiana and western Ohio.
The Santa Train is one of many operations to be included in Headwaters Junction, a popular riverfront destination included in Phase 1B of the riverfront plan by SWA Group and now Riverworks Design Group and in the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Road to One Million.
Headwaters Junction will include a railroad roundhouse and interpretative facility, railyard park and demonstration railroad. Studies have shown that as many as 20,000 visitors could be expected to descend on downtown every holiday season just for its Christmastime operations. With record-breaking attendance at the railroad society’s Open House last August, the timeless appeal of the time machine that is engine No. 765, the proven draw of rail tourism and the ongoing success of the Santa Train, it’s easy to see how Headwaters Junction will become a major venue drawing people to downtown and the riverfront from the surrounding areas, the Midwest and beyond.
Headwaters Junction remains the only revenue-generating attraction included in riverfront development – and with good reason. Stone Consulting, in studies underwritten by Steel Dynamics, the Schust Foundation and the Fort Wayne Community Foundation, has estimated the attraction could bring 140,000 additional visitors to downtown and generate $60 million in economic impact for the area.
To tap into the potential of this region’s history and identity as a transportation center, Headwaters Junction, Inc. has been incorporated by a team of community leaders.
Its board of directors includes Doug Wood, PNC Bank; Don Steininger, Steininger Development; Rob Young, Hagerman Construction; Rick Poinsatte, Steel Dynamics; Tom Trent, Rothberg Logan Warsco; Rick Samek, Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation; Kelly Lynch, FWRHS; and John Urbahns, Greater Fort Wayne.
The advisory team includes Tom Nitza, FWRHS; Brian Christophel, FWRHS; David Bennett, Fort Wayne Community Foundation; Mark Becker, Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation; Alison Gerardot, Riverfront Fort Wayne; Rob Boyd, Salin Bank; Craig Berndt, railroad historian; and Ron Dick, Design Collaborative.
Current stages for the project include negotiation or land and railroad right-of-way, construction of a roundhouse and a narrow-gauge railroad to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. The roundhouse will be a catalyst for events, operations and programs year-round – satisfying the common critique that activity near the riverfront will only occur during the summer.
As of this writing, an agreement is being finalized to transport and restore another steam locomotive for eventual display and use at Headwaters Junction, further rounding out the roster of revenue-generating cultural attractions capable of educating and entertaining thousands.
In the future, people will no longer ask how they didn’t know about these attractions that existed just around the corner from them. Instead, they’ll say: "I can’t believe this didn’t happen sooner." It’ll be a gift that lasts the whole year round.