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Festival of Trains

The Festival of Trains at Science Central in Fort Wayne featured several model train clubs and their train and track sets. Journal Gazette video by Chad Ryan.

Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
From left, Jay Abbott, 8, and his brother Austin, 5, watch as a train chugs along at Science Central on Sunday for the Festival of Trains.

Train fest entertains, educates

Making models go takes a lot of intricate work

A model train chugged and screeched past a row of parents and children at Science Central’s 15th Annual Festival of Trains on Sunday.

The conductor, Lon Hawkins of Decatur, controlled it from a chair in the center of a green table made to look like a small city with buildings and houses and even Santa flying in his sleigh overhead.

If you ask Hawkins why he wants to share his love of model trains with the next generation, he’ll tell you they are educational.

They teach children the basics of building and electrical engineering. They even give kids the chance to flex their creative muscles and make a pint-size city of imagination.

“But the biggest thing is how fast they go and how much noise they make,” Hawkins said, laughing.

His group, the Northern Indiana O-Gauge train group, was one of three that hosted displays at Science Central this weekend. Hawkins and his friend, Rick Anderson of Fort Wayne, wore pinstripe engineer’s hats and talked excitedly about the town around them.

The train display, a hodgepodge of their personal collections, is one they showcase in shows throughout the year. The full display is a 30-feet-by-40-feet layout that began in Hawkins’ basement and migrated to his barn and a special display trailer he uses to transport the trains for shows.

Anderson houses his own slab of toy trains in a spare bedroom.

“When we were younger, we all had train sets,” Anderson said. “I gave mine up for a while when I was raising my kid, but now that she’s out of the house, I started it up again.”

Dan Metzger of the Northeast Indiana N-Scale train group said there’s camaraderie among train collectors who attend festivals, and at each festival, the group gets a little bit bigger.

“You think it’s mostly geared to kids, but when people bring their families in, and we pick up a few new members,” Metzger said.

Although most of the booths this weekend were geared toward train enthusiasts of all ages, Skip Sassmannshausen manned one display that was specially geared to local adults, he said.

“This booth is for the parents and grandparents who want to talk about how things used to be,” Sassmannshausen said standing behind a display table with black-and-white photos of steam locomotives and a model replica of a yellow-and-red street car about 2 feet long.

To Sassmannshausen, the pictures and models are more than a hobby, they’re relics of a time when trains pulsed through the veins of the Midwest carrying life as well as freight. They’re hope for a future where trains might once again be a mode of transportation in Fort Wayne.

As vice president of the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association, he remembers a time when he hopped on and off streetcars to navigate Chicago, and he’s convinced streetcars will once again be a popular mode of transportation in cities like Fort Wayne.

He’s also convinced that passenger trains are coming back to the Midwest, and he’s spearheading efforts to raise money for a train connecting Fort Wayne with Chicago and Columbus.

The Passenger Rail Association is working to raise $1 million in the next few months, which will put the group on stage one of a three-stage process with the federal government to make the passenger train a reality, Sassmannshausen said.

But on top of convincing the government, he has to negotiate with the company that owns the passenger trains and prepare for at least a decade of work to make his dream a reality.

Two sets of train tracks used to run between Fort Wayne and Chicago, Sassmannshausen said. But one set of tracks was torn up. His plan is to bring the tracks that are still in place up to a higher standard so they can withstand speeds up to 110 mph, then lay a parallel track to replace the one that is now gone.

It’s a lofty order he estimates will take five to seven years at best for the negotiations alone.

The passenger train he has in mind would not be thesteam locomotive of yesteryear.

It would run on diesel electric motors, similar to the trains in Chicago now.

But Sassmannshausen finds hope for his idea in the renewed enthusiasm in trains he’s seen around the city evident in the number of locals who turned out to ride the steam locomotive 765 on a historic trip from Fort Wayne to Lafayette and back earlier this year.

“In a very real sense, steam locomotives are romantic,” Sassmannshausen said.