Nickel Plate 765 becomes '767' and helps announce waterfront development

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An artist's rendering of a nightclub scene at the proposed "Headwaters Junction" waterfront development that will be the centerpiece of new development in Fort Wayne, Ind., and a home for Nickel Plate Road No. 765.
Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society
Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society crew members unveil the Nickel Plate Road No. 765's new identity as No. 767 at the society's open house today in New Haven, Ind.
Kevin P. Keefe
NEW HAVEN, Ind. — Coming off a busy season of mainline excursions, Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765 made more news today as the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society unveiled detailed plans for a lavish new home in downtown Fort Wayne, then threw in a twist by introducing the locomotive in the guise of Nickel Plate No. 767.

With the explosion of a champagne bottle on the Berkshire’s pilot, wielded by John Urbahns, executive vice president of Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., the society kicked off a weekend-long open house designed to build excitement for its proposed Headwaters Junction development along the St. Mary’s River.

“The 765 was preserved by the City of Fort Wayne to recognize how a successful railroad elevation project in the 1950s inspired a half-century’s worth of progress,” said Kelly Lynch, a railroad society vice president. “Today the engine has become an international attraction and can be the centerpiece in a new era of development.”

Headwaters Junction is envisioned to be a $14- to $18-million project, to be constructed in three phases and designed to draw approximately 120,000 visitors annually.

“Our board is excited at the possibilities that Headwaters Junction represents for future riverfront development. We are aggressively pursuing ways to make this a reality,” said Don Steininger, a local developer who is serving as the project’s chairman.

Newly released renderings by Design Collaborative illustrate a mixed-use facility that includes a roundhouse and turntable for No. 765, a 1940s-inspired restaurant, a rail-themed park, and a narrow-gauge tourist railroad line linking the park to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo further to the north.

Officials said the attraction could host a wide range of events, such as holiday tourist train rides, a Rail Camp for children and young adults combined with other educational programming, visits from Thomas the Tank Engine and the Polar Express, interactive displays, as well as visiting historic railroad equipment.

Lynch’s reference to the elevation project explains the No. 767 renumbering and taps into a fondly remembered moment in Fort Wayne history, the October 1955 dedication of the Nickel Plate’s $9 million project to elevate its main line through downtown. The project also included a new passenger station. The elevation was a significant civic improvement, and to mark the occasion the Nickel Plate pulled 2-8-4 No. 767 out of freight service and dispatched the locomotive to break the ceremonial ribbon.

Years later, the city sought a Nickel Plate 2-8-4 for display at its Lawton Park and naturally requested the 767. However, Nickel Plate management determined that the Berkshire in the best condition for preservation was No. 765, a favorite with crews operating between Fort Wayne and Chicago. In fact, the original No. 767 was determined to be in rough shape. So with a simple switch of paint, number boards, and number plate, the 765 quietly and somewhat surreptitiously became No. 767. It was installed in the park in May 1963.

The substitute number remained on the 2-8-4 until 1974, when the railroad society formed and began its restoration of the locomotive. As an organization dedicated to authentic preservation, the society intended from the beginning to restore the engine to the original number as delivered by Lima Locomotive Works in 1944.

Lynch said the new number will stay on the engine through the rest of the 2016 season, including its series of trips September 17 to 18 and 24 to 25 on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad through the Cuyahoga River National Park near Cleveland. The new looks includes a 767 number plate, lighted number boards, and magnetic numbers along the sides of the cab and at the rear of the tender.

The number isn’t the only change to 765. To reflect the appearance of several NKP Berkshires in the 1950s, the society has returned an oscillating white Mars light to the front of the smokebox, above the headlight. The Mars light had been removed in 1975 and recently restored for the society by a former Nickel Plate electrician.

The 765 is in the midst of one of its most active periods since restoration in the 1970s, having performed on numerous trips across Norfolk Southern’s northern lines since 2014 and visiting Chicago in June 2016 for trips on Metra.

Visitors to Friday’s railroad society open house were treated to the “767” operating under steam on a short track leading out of the shop, caboose rides around the society’s property, and displays depicting Headwaters Junction.

The Headwaters Junction project has been organized into three phases:

• Construction of a 15- to 24-inch gauge railroad to the zoo ($3-5 million)
• Acquisition of land and right-of-way, construct railroad, install turntable ($3-4 million)
• Build a roundhouse and interpretive facility ($8-9 million)

Steininger said he is optimistic about the organization’s fundraising prospects. The Headwaters Junction advisory board is preparing grant requests and additional study work for this fall, said Lynch.

More information is available online.

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