ABOARD THE WABASH CANNONBALL – The passengers were lining up by 6:30 a.m. as the black hulk of locomotive No. 765 stood in sharp relief against a pre-dawn sky, hissing steam that floated above the Maplecrest Road bridge.
From California and New York, Ohio and Texas, Fort Wayne and Crown Point, they'd come, awaiting what for some would be a trip of a lifetime – and one that hadn't been possible for 20 years, the last time a steam-driven passenger train departed from Fort Wayne.
A little after 8:30 a.m., car host supervisor Tom Miller is joking with people on board Norfolk Southern Car 29 that it is OK to start out a bit late.
"You're on railroad time now!" he says with a laugh. "Enjoy it!"
A few minutes later, the train begins a gentle glide – past the Baker Street station and the General Electric plant sign in downtown Fort Wayne, through Eagle Marsh, where birdwatchers momentarily turn cameras and binoculars in the direction of the train's steam trail.
It picks up speed past cleared cornfields outside Huntington where a grazing deer barely notices, past a turreted brick Victorian mansion and its turn-of-the-20th century companions in Wabash, past a giant field dotted with orange pumpkins outside Peru.
"What surprised me is how smooth it is," says David Heidbrink of Fort Wayne, traveling for the first time on a steam train with his wife, Kathy, and grandson Jaedan Householder, 12, also from Fort Wayne.
"I thought it would be bumpy," Jaedan says. "It's pretty quiet. From what I see about trains in the movies, I thought it would roll from side to side, and this one's not."
All along the track to Lafayette, onlookers by the hundreds wave at the train from their SUVs, or pause on top of their tractors or combines and stare. People snap pictures from cameras mounted on tripods set up at the end of one-lane gravel lanes and stand at a depot with cellphones raised as the 14-wheeled chugging monster of an engine, all 14 tons of it, passes and then lets out a series of long, low-pitched whistles crossing the Wabash River in Logansport.
Though the train goes by the name of the Wabash Cannonball, its locomotive wasn't built in that Indiana town. The engine came from the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio, part of its technologically advanced, high-speed and high-powered Berkshire fleet built just as the railroad era was winding down.
"Wabash," says Kelly Lynch, communications director for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, "actually refers to one of six railroads that once ran through Fort Wayne."
The Nickel Plate Railroad commissioned the engine, he says; the nonprofit historical society serves as guardian of the mammoth machine at a train shop and museum in New Haven. The group also arranges excursions with the cooperation of Norfolk Southern, which now operates the former Nickel Plate line.
At the railroads' height in the 1920s to '40s, Lynch says, Fort Wayne was a major railroad hub. "You could reach any corner of the country from the railroads in Fort Wayne," he says – and that included a route between Detroit and St. Louis that ran through the city from 1949 to 1971 known as the Wabash Cannonball.
The route had been named after a popular song written at least four decades before the engine on the line Saturday was built in 1944, Lynch says.
By the 1950s, the Nickel Plate was running 57 trains a day, at street level, through downtown Fort Wayne.
Residents fretted about timing car trips between trains, the danger to pedestrians and clear passage for emergency vehicles.
In the 1950s, Fort Wayne elevated the Nickel Plate tracks, celebrating the occasion in 1955 with a parade and a steam locomotive numbered 767 breaking a banner strung across them. "It was a big deal," Lynch says, so much so that a few years later then-city Mayor Henry Berghoff wanted to put the locomotive on display.
"By then the railroad had mothballed their steam engines," Lynch says, and the 767 had been in a derailment and "was in pretty rough shape." Instead, the railroad bequeathed the city a different engine of the same type but better cared for. That engine was 765, though it was renumbered 767.
It sat as an exhibit in Lawton Park from 1963 until 1974 – likely the reason it was one of only about a half-dozen steam locomotives that escaped demolition in the switch to diesel power, Lynch says.
But without a budget to maintain it, the locomotive languished. The historical society took over its care, moved it and restored it to the point that it moved under its own power again in 1979. It began to run tourist excursions around the Midwest and South carrying about 100,000 passengers until 1993, when a major rebuilding lasting more than a decade began.
But recently the engine, restored to its original 765 number, has been back on the tracks again, going on sold-out trips to Ohio and Pennsylvania and goodwill trips for Norfolk Southern employees. Saturday's trip to Lafayette sold out in minutes, Lynch says, and extra cars were added.
"The 765 is just a very beloved engine," he says. "People who were involved with the railroad, like the engineers, say it was their favorite. … Some people call it the queen of the fleet."
'My play clothes'
It's a little after 12:30, and the train has pulled into Lafayette next to a fire station parking lot filled with waiting buses to take its 730-plus passengers into town.
Conductor John Edminson, 67, of Piqua, Ohio, is helping some off the train, down a set of steep portable steps. A railroad ticket agent who retired after 32 years, he's wearing an authentic conductor's suit, with a sharp-brimmed hat bearing a brass plaque that reads "Trainman."
"I call these my play clothes," he says, adding he bought them 15 years ago for about $100 – about the price of an entry-level ticket on Saturday – at a railroading convention. He glances at a fancy golden pocket watch attached to a chain across his vest.
"I volunteer. The pay is, I get to ride the train – the vintage cars, I like them," he says. "It's a festive atmosphere. The people are so nice."
Earlier, in a coach car, Tom Rock, 59, is sporting a gray fedora and a navy pinstriped suit – authentic, from the 1940s and bought online, he says – and looks the part of a World War II businessman on his commute home.
Dressing up, he says, helps him soak up the atmosphere of the middle of the last century. "People don't dress up anymore when they travel," says the retired middle school history teacher from Crown Point. "Just to ride steam is fun. It's nostalgia. It's like being in the old movies."
Back in the domed observation car, in the lap of luxury, Frank Schmitt of Rockford, Ill., is taking photographs out the window, and, he says, "crossing one off my bucket list." In a no-frills coach car, 15 people related to John Larsen and their relatives are making the trip in memory of the Fort Wayne rail fan who died about two years ago.
"He used to make a really great train whistle sound," says Katie Larsen, 21, an IPFW student from Fort Wayne.
Cheryl Podosek, 44, of Cheektowaga, N.Y., outside Buffalo, is riding in memory of her dad, William Cochrane, with her mom, Alice Cochrane, 70. Her father was a long-time rail fan who ran a train hobby shop.
"This is my father's favorite engine," Podosek says. "He actually made a recording of it in the Horseshoe Curve (in Altoona), and the money he made from it paid for the down payment of our house."
As others on the trip back marvel at the caravan of vehicles that cruise along roadway near the train – including two motorcyclists with fluorescent green stripes on their jackets who show up no less than seven times – Podosek says she gets the thrill of "chasing," as rail fans call the activity, which is aided by an app for the iPhone that shows the position of the train at any time it's running.
The app is available on the railroad society's website at 765.org.
"When we were little, Daddy used to take us chasing trains," she says, noting she did it herself a couple of months back, chasing a freight train her brother Eric was engineering.
"The thrill is like you have to rush to get ahead of the train and get out at your spot and rush to get a picture," she says. "I see all these cars chasing with us, and I say, 'That would be Dad.' I just get a kick out of it."
The light has faded by the time 765 is about to pull into Fort Wayne, and Miller, from Bloomdale, Ohio, says he doesn't get to go home tonight.
While a new crew monitors and prepares the engine for another round trip to Lafayette today, he and some other volunteers will sleep on the train, in an observation car that has four bedrooms and showers.
"It's what the movie stars would have ridden on from California to New York. There were only a couple of them made," he says. "That was luxury."
At 72, Miller says he's happy to share his knowledge and love of trains. "I just enjoy talking to the people," he says. "But we're looking for younger people, too, to follow in our footsteps because we're getting too old to do it."
A few moments later, the Wabash Cannonball lets out its final whistle for the day – a long, low wail that echoes through New Haven, like the rumble and the roar sung about for decades.
The name of the communications director of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society was misspelled in the story about the steam-engine train ride. His name is Kelly Lynch. The story also misstated the formation of the Nickel Plate Railroad. It did not merge from the Wabash and Pennsylvania Railroads.