Reprinted by permission of author Henry Lange, columnist and staff writer for The News-Dispatch, Michigan City, IN 46360. – Ed.
“We think this is the find of the century,” John Edris said yesterday with the kind of pride that pops brass buttons on an engineer’s overalls.
The buttons stayed in place, but Edris, director of the LaPorte County Steam Museum, and the other active members of the LaPorte County Historical Steam Society in Hesston are finding it difficult to hold back big smiles, broad grins and other displays of happiness usually reserved for new fathers or winning political candidates.
Things are on a roll at the Hesston Steam Yards, thanks to the addition of four new steam locomotives – the entire working equipment of a pre-World War II narrow gauge German railroad.
I found John standing atop Number 1930, a twelve ton, 0-4-0 engine manufactured in Czechoslovakia in 1940 but never delivered to Germany because of the war.
“She’s never been fired,” Edris said. “It’s a brand new locomotive just as it came from the factory – never used.”
John placed the value of the locomotive, its cab and part of the boiler – all painted in two shades of green separated by gold leaf – at $300,000. It’s as rare a piece of machinery as you’d find anywhere in the world.
A few hundred feet away, on the regular Hesston right-of-way, sat three more steamers: A sixteen ton engine manufactured in 1906 by Jung of Germany, a 1934 Henshel ten ton locomotive, and an eighteen ton Orenstein & Koppel engine built in 1938 with eight drive wheels. The Henshel is similar to the first locomotive introduced to the public at Hesston during the 1966 Steam Show.
John makes no secret about which engine will be rolling first.
He’s got the brass plates reading “Ceskomoravska-Kolbein Davek, Aktier Gesellehaft” – the Czech locomotive – cast and ready to be bolted on.
“It’s going to take a while to get it ready,” he said. “Even though it was never used, the grease has had quite a while to harden between 1940 and now. We even found some timber mouse nests in a valve shaft, so there’s work to do.”
The timber mice are from California, he said. They’re from a huge ranch at Novato owned by George Mohun, a physician and former steam buff who dreamed of building a railroad. He bought one, but then found he couldn’t use it.
Edris said Mohun purchased the equipment of the defunct German narrow-gauge line after the war and had it all shipped to California with plans to reassemble it near San Salito. The town’s zoning officials thought otherwise. So the doctor had all the equipment carted to a storage area in the highlands of his ranch site.
In May of 1985, fire struck at Hesston, destroying the Steam Society’s collection of large steam locomotives. One engine, built in England for use in India, was restored last year and used in the annual Steam Show, but the other locomotives needed near-impossible repairs or restoration that would be long and difficult.
The entire engine house was destroyed in the flames, though that structure since has been replaced.
The Hesston story was covered in Trains Magazine, prompting the sympathetic Mohun to contact Edris and the society members. Talks were started.
John visited the doctor’s ranch, built like a railroad depot atop a hill.
“Along with being a doctor, he’s an expert mechanic and builder, and he loves steam,” John said.
A second trip back to California was for packing and preparation – made after an agreement was reached with the doctor to purchase the four engines and eight bases and wheels for passenger cars at a cost approaching $100,000.
Four huge low-boy flatbed semi trailer trucks were used to transport the railroad equipment back to Hesston.
The 2,200-mile trip back to LaPorte County was almost history upon history, including a run through the notorious Donner Pass in eastern California. It was there that forty of eighty-two settlers from the Midwest died after being trapped in the winter of 1846. The first Transcontinental Railroad also traversed the pass.
The trucks pulled through the gates at the steam yard, and with the aid of a mammoth crane, the engines were taken down.
Edris said the acquisition will mean big steamers will be running at Hesston while the society volunteers restore the famous Shay logging engine and the Porter locomotive damaged in the 1985 fire.
The addition of the new “California” locomotives plus the restoration of the damaged engines is expected to make the steam museum an international center of working steam history, incorporating narrow gauge locomotive design from Europe, Asia and the United States from its earlier years.
The museum draws thousands of visitors each year for its family-oriented activities, featuring its display of masterful miniature operating steam locomotives on weekends as well as its major summer activities.
Edris couldn’t say when the new locomotives will be in operation, but the Czech engine is not expected to be fired up until after a complete strip down, cleaning and close inspection.
I asked him where he’s going to find the talent to operate all that equipment, knowing full well that the young men and women and seasoned veterans that make up the regular crew at the steam yard have, no doubt, made a study of the valves and gauges already.
“When this gets out, you’re going to see a lot of guys floating across here with a case of throttle fever,” John said.
The steam yard is located along LaPorte County Road 1000N, east of Indiana 39.
You can tell when you’re nearing the museum by the sound of the whistles – only this year, with four new locomotives, you may hear the cheering first. IMA