The Little Engine That Might

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

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.

But by the early 1970s, B&O's business here had slackened, and the company eventually vacated the roundhouse. In 1975, Midwest moved in. It bought 4070 for $10,000 and docked it there. Its grand Pullman cars and a refurbished dining car were stored on tracks out back, and with them a new railroad heyday began.

"We ran trips out of Akron to the Chardon Maple Sugar Festival. We'd load up the general public for five bucks each and do mystery trips," Fink fondly recalls. "You bought a ticket and didn't have any idea where you were going. The only hint was the direction the train was pointed."

In the mid-'70s, Midwest started Cuyahoga Valley excursions: The national park owned the tracks and let Midwest use them, and Midwest supplied the coaches, dining car, and of course, 4070.

In 1984, the steamer pulled three of Midwest's handsomely restored Pullmans and a caboose to New York, where TriStar Pictures paid dearly to use them for filming of The Natural. One of the coaches had come to be known as the "Killer Car" for a brush it had with another passing train in the 1940s; the impact damaged pipes, resulting in 27 passengers being steamed to death. Robert Redford didn't seem to mind.

Midwest was making money, its members were playing like children — and then, en route to a Cuyahoga Valley run in 1990, 4070 broke down.

"I knew it had a problem," says Fink, the last engineer to run the great steamer. "It carries 18 tons of coal and 12,000 gallons of water. I pulled out of the roundhouse, and by the time I'd gotten about two miles down along West Third, I'd gone through 10,000 gallons of water. That was not good. Normally it only took 7,500 gallons to get from Cleveland to Akron."

With that, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad bought its own vintage diesel locomotive and cars to continue the lucrative excursions, and the park and Midwest parted ways.

But without its main moneymaker, Midwest spiraled into depression. The nonprofit continued buying vintage cars and locomotives to refurbish in hopes of reselling or leasing them to make the $200,000 it would take to fix the steamer. At the same time, the group's aging board members increasingly turned to raising money to convert the roundhouse into a railroad museum. To outsiders it might have looked like a colossal waste of time. But most of the outside world had no idea they even existed.

If the Midwest roundhouse wasn't exactly the lounge at the Ritz, its members didn't seem to notice.

"It was like a private gentlemen's club," recalls the group's new president, Don Zeyer, a relative newcomer who has heard tales of days gone by. "They didn't want outsiders. Guys would come down here and play their trains and smoke cigars."

And they would occasionally garner the wrong kind of attention.

When a construction accident at a lumber company next door caused a third of the historic roundhouse to collapse in 2003, news reports of bricks blocking West Third was the most publicity that came of it. When a caboose fell off a nearby trestle into the river and Midwest rescued it, the group became famous for an ignominious moment.

"We've made the news in all the wrong ways," Korpos says.

With a third of the original roundhouse gone, the structure today is an unimposing presence, with its blackened red bricks and its badly warped wooden bay doors. A thick coat of lime sprayed on the walls inside — a safety measure following a big fire during the Depression — is starting to flake off. "It's a constant sweep-up," Korpos says.

Although Midwest owns six barbed-wire-surrounded acres on West Third, the bulk of the vintage cars are stored in the back. A bright red antique caboose out front offers the only clue that might startle a passerby into wondering what goes on there.

Part of the problem was, Zeyer says, that Midwest's board had succumbed to bad politics and dubious deals that brought in little cash. As these troubles increased, the trains they had to play with decreased. While members joked and smoked under soot-slapped ceilings, muck accumulated beneath the old turntable that once ushered locomotives and cars off the tracks and into the roundhouse for repair.

A line of vintage cars a half-mile long languished on the tracks out back. Some had been brilliantly refurbished, only to sit and gather rust for lack of funds and volunteers to fix them. Others, dilapidated almost beyond recognition, had been sent to Midwest for repair but were long forgotten by their owners. One of them was the "vulture car," a 1930s passenger car that was special for its time: complete with fancy porthole windows, round mirrors, and luggage racks with lights. It's been untouched for 20 years, but for the buzzards that perch on it every summer.

"You wouldn't believe the amount of crap in there," Korpos says. "And the concrete floor is rotted through. We had an inspector look at it, and he dropped right through the concrete to the track. I think he was talking in a higher pitch for a few days after that."

The most devastating blow came in 2004, when Midwest's board said that the city had condemned the roundhouse as a result of the construction accident. The stall that housed their beloved 4070 was off limits, leaving little hope that they would ever get it running again.

With no train to fix, Midwest's membership started to drift away, from a high of around 200 to about half that. The group would sometimes recruit members at train shows, and eyes would inevitably light up whenever talk turned to the fabled 4070 — never mind that it hadn't so much as sounded its whistle in years.

One of the enamored was retired Mayfield Village firefighter Charley Sedgley.

"I was like 'You have a what?" recalls Sedgley, who signed on in 2005. "A real steam locomotive? Really?"

But his enthusiasm was short-lived. "We'd walk in here, and it was mental overload looking at everything that needed to be done. The people who were here then were well-meaning. They sat around and did a lot of talking about trains but didn't do any labor."

Zeyer, a handsome, salt-and-peppered model railroader and machinist in his forties, joined Midwest during a car show in 2008. "I live and work right near here," he says, "and when they showed me an architectural drawing of the roundhouse, I said, 'It's where? I've never seen it.'"

Meanwhile, Korpos, in the midst of his domestic upheaval, wandered into the place one weekend, presumably to keep himself out of a strip club.

"Steve came to an open house one day and said, 'I think I can turn this place around,'" Zeyer recalls with a wide smile. And with that, Midwest had hope once again.

After a couple years of observation, Zeyer, Korpos, and the newer members staged a coup. The old board was out and a new one in. President Zeyer appointed Korpos roundhouse supervisor — a commitment of three years of full-time, unpaid work, six days a week. Their lofty goals: get 4070 running before its 100th birthday in 2018, get the roundhouse in full working condition, develop the place as a "working railroad" museum, and restore Midwest to its heyday of running vintage train excursions.

In the 10 months since Zeyer and Korpos took over, things have changed already. They learned that the entire roundhouse was never condemned — just one gutted and shored-up section, which they figure can be restored with $250,000 they don't have. It houses repair bays that would provide more space for restoring locomotives and vintage cars, which can then be sold or leased. The most annoying revelation, though, was that the stalls where 4070 lives had never been condemned; volunteer crews could have been working on her all along.

But while there is much work to do, there are few men to do it.

"I operate on a zero budget," Korpos says with a laugh. "We need an influx of money and an influx of members: members who want to work, not just talk about trains. We got rid of those."

Welders, mechanics of any type, metal workers, pipe fitters, machinists, IT geeks, administrative help — anyone with an interest is welcome, as long as they're willing to sling a paint brush. No railroad experience is needed; the veterans are happy to teach.

Korpos is seizing every opportunity to make money. Alongside 4070 is a 1940s diesel locomotive that's being entirely rebuilt; once complete, it will be leased out to a steelyard or freight yard. A 1940s coach in mid-restoration has already been sold to the Stark County village of Hartville, where it will rest on the town square.

A bunch of cabooses sit in various states of disrepair out back, including an 1892 wooden model that's considered a tinderbox by modern rail regulations. But track-worthy or not, there's a lot of money in cabooses: Old ones can be picked up for a couple grand, then resold for at least $20K after restoration. A Westlake woman recently bought one as a surprise gift for her husband and had Midwest restore it.

"That's a good woman," Zeyer says.

With the new buzz and spirit of activity at the roundhouse, new members have gradually followed — boosting membership to 168, with about 50 who routinely volunteer. Korpos is contemplating deals with vocational schools and companies like Lincoln Electric, who could train welders at the roundhouse, using train parts that happen to need welding.

In fact, Korpos has become a master dealmaker. Midwest just signed a contract to maintain all of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad's cars — a pact that will bring the group a half-million dollars over several years. Korpos' bargain acquisition of a high-end industrial pressure washer made the difference.

"All they have down there is a mop," he says delightedly, indicating the still-simmering rivalry that developed between Midwest and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad after their split.

"Without Midwest, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad wouldn't exist," Korpos says through a chuckle. He delights in the fact that, to this day, callers must dial 4070 to get the Railroad's reservation line.

Korpos has connected with John Birmingham, a Colorado millionaire and a long-lost customer. Twenty years ago, he sent the vulture car and others cross country to be restored. He never came back for them.

Recently, Birmingham agreed to give Midwest a power car, which the group badly needs to run with 4070 and generate electricity for the passenger cars. He's also handing over the lone remaining double dining and kitchen car in the U.S. "We will be the only railroad in the country that can have 68 people for dinner at the same time!" Korpos says, unable to stifle his glee — and unsullied by the many logistical and regulatory roadblocks that could hinder such a quest.

And what does Birmingham get?

"I don't know yet," says the 82-year-old owner of a chemical manufacturing company. "Those details aren't exactly worked out. I hope I get a free pass to ride on their railroad or something." Birmingham says he always liked the old guard from Midwest, though "they didn't seem to get much done."

"But Steve sounds like a real go-getter. I feel really good about him and am in a position to help him."

Korpos and Midwest could use all the help they can get.

Not long ago, a break-in set their efforts back even further. Thieves loaded up a U-Haul in the middle of the night with $50,000 worth of wheel bearings off 4070, selling them for scrap for $750. Fortunately, members made a sweep of area scrap yards and bought back all but two for $780. Now the group has hidden 4070's headlight so it doesn't turn up missing.

There's a storage building next to the roundhouse that has seen better days, and in this case, Korpos is perhaps overly optimistic. He wants a model railroad group to adopt and renovate it to display their model trains, in exchange for free rent. "We will help them fix it up," he says. So far, no takers.

Then there's the water problem. Lots of it. Somewhere under the vast expanse of working CSX tracks behind the roundhouse is a water main break that dumps 1,000 gallons into the ground every hour. An awful lot of it shows up in the work pit underneath 4070 and under the turntable out back. Calls to CSX have gone unanswered for years.

Amid it all, open houses are in the works (see above), classes being offered to aspiring brakemen, conductors, and engineers, and restoration constantly under way. Just last week, four diesel locomotives were donated, prompting talk of reinstating mystery trips and grander excursions traversing the country — perhaps even to Hawaii, as part of a travel company's no-airplanes specialty package.

"See, the railroad ties are made of wood. They float," Zeyer explains, checking to see if anyone actually believes him.

With a diesel locomotive and cars that are permitted to run on Amtrak lines, there is no limit to the possibilities they see — if you look past the $1 million Korpos estimates it would take to get their vehicles up to Amtrak specs and the two years it would take to get each additional passenger car restored.

For 4070, no amount of restoration will be enough: The steamer will never be fast enough to run on Amtrak passenger lines, though it may someday pull cars along shorter, slower routes.

As for Korpos? Since his rough ride a couple years ago, he has settled into a new home in North Royalton. There's no garden railroad in the backyard and no plans to build one there. He has no idea what his ex even did with the trains. "I hope she gave them to my grandchildren."

Korpos has shrugged off model railroads, perhaps permanently. He's got six days a week to keep his mind occupied, and bigger trains to get back on the line.

***

Caboose Rides This Saturday!

Whether you're hankering to sit high above the tracks in a locomotive cab or just sit in the seat Robert Redford had in The Natural, Saturday is your day.

The Midwest Railway Preservation Society will host an open house from noon to 4 p.m. on May 12, featuring in-depth tours of the historic B&O roundhouse and all its railroad cars and equipment. Volunteer experts will guide groups through the two-plus-hour walk around the site, with new tours starting every 30 minutes. For the kids, there will be 20-minute caboose rides. "We find that little girls tend to be more interested in trains than little boys," says roundhouse supervisor Steve Korpos. He can't explain why.

"Everyone here knows a lot about some things, but no one knows the whole story of everything here," says Korpos, encouraging repeat visits. "So if you have a different guide, you get a completely different kind of tour."

Requested donation for the open house tour is $5, or $3 for train buffs under 12. Private tours for groups, organizations, and schools are available by appointment. The roundhouse is in the Flats at 2800 West Third Street. For more information, call 216-781-3629 or go to midwestrailway.org.

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