By now, you’ve probably heard something about Fort Wayne’s Harry Baals.
Our mayor for four terms in the 1930s and the 1950s made headlines in recent years when the city began exploring names for a new city-county building. The top-ranking name, by far, on an online vote was the “Harry Baals Government Center.” Although the name didn’t stick, it gave comedians and readers a good laugh.
In recent weeks, A Better Fort has helped us get in on the joke, too, by naming a two-part summer concert series #BAALS to “show the world that this city, in fact, has #BAALS.” The first #BAALS block party kickstarts the Three Rivers Festival on Friday in the 800 block of South Calhoun Street, and the second is on Aug. 1 in the 100 block of West Columbia Street on The Landing.
As the Baals party prepares for its big debut this weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder about the true Harry Baals, and when I researched him, I was surprised to learn how his work with Fort Wayne’s railroads is inspiring change that could bring passenger trains chugging into Fort Wayne’s future.
Among other accomplishments, Harry Baals is remembered for leading the effort to elevate our Nickel Plate Railroad tracks above a half-dozen downtown streets to keep traffic moving through the heart of the city.
Kelly Lynch, communications director for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, said that before the railroad was elevated, more than 50 trains a day chugged through downtown, stopping traffic on major avenues, such as Wells Street, Calhoun Street and Clinton Street. Elevating the tracks kept traffic moving and allowed the city to develop.
But what was once an effort to make Fort Wayne more mobile by getting the trains out of the way has turned into an effort to make Fort Wayne more mobile by bringing the trains back. And this time, they won’t interrupt your morning commute.
765 brings tourists to Three Rivers Festival
On Saturday and Sunday, two round-trip excursions by the historic steam locomotive No. 765 (http://fortwaynerailroad.org/events/) will bring hundreds of visitors to the Three Rivers Festival from Detroit, Michigan, via the elevated railroads Baals helped make possible.
The Detroit Arrow passengers will get off the train at the corner of Calhoun and Superior Streets and spend about four hours at the festival before riding the train home.
Lynch said the train is expected to arrive at the station between 11 a.m. and noon each day, and even though only incoming passengers are allowed on it, the public is encouraged to watch. One of the best places to catch the 765 in motion will be at Berry Street and North Anthony Boulevard, Lynch said.
But the two celebratory excursions next week are only a preview to what Lynch and other railroad enthusiasts hope will become a more permanent part of our city with the Headwaters Junction plan. As part of riverfront development, Headwaters Junction would involve a train platform and new tracks for a local train connecting Fort Wayne’s top attractions, such as the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo and Science Central, by our historic steam locomotives.
Lynch said a new layout for the plan is expected to be made public sometime soon, but the idea is to have the trains run adjacent to downtown and the rivers, connecting Fort Wayne’s trails and current attractions to future attractions along the riverfront as the city develops.
The Headwaters Junction plan would bring more people into downtown and make train trips more common, meaning more opportunities for everything from inexpensive dinner trains to excursions to regional and tri-state destinations.
Locals already got a taste of our steam locomotive’s potential last October when the historic 765 made a round trip from New Haven to Lafayette. Because the trip sold out within two hours, Lynch thinks locals would like to see passenger trains utilized more often around the city as an alternative means of transportation.
While traveling the East Coast on summer vacation last week, I was thinking about how nice it would be to have the convenience of a train around Fort Wayne so I didn’t have to drive to work every day. Taking the train is about more than going somewhere; it’s about experiencing the journey. Even though the plans for Headwaters Junction are a far cry from the big city New York metro system, this is a step toward making Fort Wayne more walkable and true to its own roots.
In September 2012, Jim Wrinn, editor of TRAINS Magazine, called the Headwaters Junction idea one of the top railway preservations projects in the nation.
“The potential it has to become a catalyst for tourism, an engine for economic development, and a spark for the overall livability of your city is enormous,” Wrinn said.
And when you think about the possibilities, it’s hard not to get onboard with the idea. A few weeks ago, organizers of the #BAALS series told The Journal Gazette that the goal of the concert series is to feature the best of what downtown has to offer and to grow the series until it is a signature event that attracts tourists nationwide.
In a way, bringing the Headwaters Junction plan to fruition would help meet these goals by showcasing some of Fort Wayne’s best historic assets and transporting more tourists to town. I think that would make the real Harry Baals proud.