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Listen for the Whistle

Country MoonSometimes when I write an article, the article takes on a whole new direction than I had planned and almost writes itself. Funny how that happens.

I have always been intrigued with steam engines, the massive steel horses that helped open up the western part of the country for expansion. All the old Western movies portray the blood and sweat of the men who laid the track that would connect the Wild West with the East via the steam engine. So, this aspect is what I was going to delve into. However it became much more personal about a certain engine when I met Jim Mauer and Dick Stose, two volunteers with the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, who could not sing enough praises about Engine No. 765. This is her story.

volunteers and Engine No. 785 

After being retired as a working steam engine in 1958, the fate of the 765 was to go for scrap. It was saved when the city of Fort Wayne requested the donation of a locomotive for display in a downtown park. It was saved again from becoming a rusting monument when the volunteers of the Fort Wayne Historical Society decided in 1972 that she had some running days left in her. She was rescued and restored to her full operating condition in 1979. The society had become the first non-profit corporation in the world to restore and operate a mainline steam locomotive.

“It was a labor, a long labor of love,” Jim says. “This society is made up strictly of volunteers so each person brought their own expertise on nights after work, weekends and any spare moment we had. This was a huge undertaking for an all-volunteer project, but the outcome was so worthwhile.”

Engine No. 765 is one of a famous class of steam locomotives called the Berkshire, built in 1944 by Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio. She has 14 wheels, stands 15 feet tall, weighs 404 tons, and is one of only a handful that still operate in the United States. Berkshires are an elite class of steam locomotives known for their super power, advanced technology and aesthetic charm.

Engine No. 765 is celebrated for pulling passenger excursions throughout the country as a goodwill ambassador. For 14 years after her “1979 rebirth,” the 765 ran excursions that extended as far east as New Jersey and as far south as Georgia to the delight of 100,000 passengers.

It appeared in two feature films, the 1981 production of “Four Friends” and 1987’s “Matewan.” During this span of time it logged 52,000 miles of excursion service displaying the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. It also helped generate a new activity called “trainspotting” where people would literally line the streets to see a piece of history go by.

Engine No. 765 

“This is pretty amazing,” Jim says, “when you consider that all the maintenance and operation of the 765 is strictly volunteer. But it works both ways in that it allows all the volunteers to do things that they used to only dream about.”

Most of the volunteers have dedicated every free minute of their lives to their “other” love, the 765. Dick’s eyes gleam when he talks about her. He does work around the grounds of the museum. “We have different events throughout the year and we do it all, preserve, display and operate railroad equipment. Our motto is ‘Whatever it takes.’”

Jim has loved trains ever since he was a boy growing up in Lima and working on the rails. “I was lucky,” he says. “I grew up in Lima where they make these beautiful machines. When I’d hear the whistle I’d run through town to hang on the fence by the tracks just to watch them rush by. There was nothing better!”

Speaking of whistles, there is no other sound like that of a train whistle. Before cell phones and the like re-vamped our society, the train whistle was the way workers communicated with each other on a train. Today, people still “listen for the whistle,” but they are likely to only hear three distinct variations. The grade-crossing warning is used to warn employees and others on the tracks, two or three short blasts indicate the engineer is planning to move forward or backward, and one long blast is sounded when the train is approaching a station. Oh, to hear that whistle!

Each member of the 765’s crew brings his own talent to make each excursion a success because logging the miles on engines isn’t always as easy as the process implies. Basically, the locomotive is the train’s power generator. The tender is a separate car connected to the locomotive, which carries fuel and water to feed the engine. Fire heats water in the boiler and turns it to steam, and water from the tender is fed to the boiler through a tank hose by a water pump, and coal is still shoveled by hand on the grates in the locomotive’s firebox.

volunteer and Engine No. 785 

Jim says that being able to turn a wrench on this fine machine is never work, but rather a labor of love. Apparently so, because the 765 was completely rebuilt again between 1993 and 2005. One of the highlights for him was being able to attend TrainFestival 2009 in Owosso, Michigan. The Nickel Plate Road No. 765 steamed into town and, once it was in sight of sister Berkshire locomotive Pere Marquette No. 1225, the two steam engines exchanged a minute-long whistle salute. “It just doesn’t get any better,” Jim says.

Steel wheels running on steel tracks help support the economy, save fuel and protect the environment. A single train can carry as much freight as 280 trucks and if just 10 percent of long-haul freight now moved by truck was shipped by rail, greenhouse gas emissions would drop by approximately 11 million tons annually. That is the same as removing 466,665 trucks from the road or planting more than 250 million trees. Maybe it’s time to re-think steam.

As for now, Engine 765 is still doing its part by helping people relive a bygone era through its excursions. Dick and Jim’s enthusiasm has definitely convinced me to put on my bucket list a visit to the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society and meet more of their dedicated volunteers. Until I do make it down, I’ll just “listen for the whistle.”