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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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.

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