The Little Engine That Might

A train group in the Flats fights to jump-start an old-time railroad. It won't be easy

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By the end of 2010, things weren't looking so good for Steve Korpos. In just over a year's time, he'd gotten divorced, then retired, and his out-of-state children weren't bringing the grandkids around often enough.

But that's not what really stung.

"My ex was supposed to give me my trains back, and she never did."

His was not the average loop-around-the-Christmas-tree hobby. "I liked them a little bigger," Korpos says in his ever-serious monotone. After 21 years and thousands upon thousands of dollars invested in his toys, he had amassed a garden-scale model railroad with almost 900 feet of track taking up half of his Brook Park backyard.

Korpos' set wasn't big enough to ride on, but it was large by most any measure: There were 20 engines, each about three feet long; 100 cars averaging about a foot each; and perfectly scaled buildings and towns populated by people a few inches tall.

Armed with the pattern-designing skills he honed at Ford, Korpos branched out to constructing tracks and buildings for other modelers across the country. Eyeing a business opportunity, he started traveling to model shows to sell his wares.

But then everything was gone. No wife, no family, no job, and no hobby. Just. Like. That.

"I didn't have anything to do. What would I do? Go to stripper bars and get in trouble all day? This was not me," he says. "I'm a worker. I feel good when I achieve goals."

Today, Korpos hoists his stocky 55-year-old frame into the smokehouse that fronts a 220-ton, 3,000 horsepower antique steam engine, and a giant smile cracks through his ever-present stone face.

"My ex can't take this away from me!"

Whether through simple serendipity or a touch of karma flowing the right way, Korpos' new marriage, to the struggling 57-year-old Midwest Railway Preservation Society, appears to be one built to last. But there is always optimism when a new union starts; only time will tell if this one's a winner.

The year was 1955 when a group of Akron train aficionados came together over their shared love of rail travel. In its earliest incarnation, membership in Midwest Railway amounted to organizing excursions they could enjoy together.

But when the steam engine era gave way to more economical diesel locomotives in 1958, the group saw an opportunity in preserving vintage coach cars for future generations to enjoy. Midwest would hook its refurbished classic Pullmans and dining cars to whatever major railroad locomotive happened to be headed their way and make mini-vacations out of it. Back then, railroads were much more accommodating to private excursion routings.

But things took off in 1966 when Midwest came upon its grand dame: a 1918 Grand Trunk Western steam engine called by its number: 4070. One of a couple hundred of the very first engines the U.S. mass produced, the steamer had run continuously from 1918 to 1960, even serving as the backup locomotive for Harry Truman's campaign train. But with the steam era over, 4070 sat in a salvage line in Michigan when it was swapped out at the last minute by a railroad man who thought it better than scrap fodder. Today, only about five such locomotives remain.

Midwest took an interest in leasing it and, realizing they had nowhere to put it, sent it to run trips in Erie and later at Conneaut Lake Park.

"There was only about a mile of track there," says Doug Fink, who was in his twenties when he became qualified to run the engine at Conneaut. "But there just wasn't enough money to keep running it. It costs so much to maintain these things." Indeed, steam locomotives have a lot of moving parts to repair and keep up to federal railroad standards. So Midwest brought the engine to Cleveland, where it sat for years under Terminal Tower.

"You could see it sitting in the dust through the columns going by if you were on an outbound Rapid," Korpos recalls.

For decades, B&O had been the king of all train traffic serving the industrial Flats. In 1906, the railroad giant built a state-of-the-art roundhouse on West Third Street. It boasted 15 repair bays and a turntable to usher locomotives and cars in and out.

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