There was a time when Herb Crawford thought he would never again climb into a train’s Post Office car to sort mail.
He still remembers the day, in 1967, when the U.S. Postal Service ended mail deliveries on the railroad. Crawford, who had supervised railroad deliveries for years, from Kansas City to Tulsa and Albuquerque, remembers being saddened at the end of an era.
“All of a sudden it hit me,” said the retired Kansas City postal service manager, now 90. “I’m not going out there anymore.”
But this weekend, he did go out there again. An antique steam-powered locomotive named “Hank” pulled into the train depot in Baldwin and brought the history of the railroad with it. For at least a weekend, Crawford could climb aboard the train again and relive those older times, joined by curious visitors of all ages.
“Hank,” a Flagg Coal Company Engine, No. 75, arrived to serve as the centerpiece of Midland Railway’s annual Railfest, a celebration of railroad history this weekend at Santa Fe Depot Park, 1515 High St., Baldwin City. Built more than 70 years ago in Pennsylvania, the steam engine was brought back to life by an Indiana father-son team who say they’ve let their hobby of rebuilding locomotives get out of hand. The men had brought another locomotive to Baldwin last year, and their return with another inspired Railfest 2013’s event “Back in Steam.” Through Monday, the Midland Railway historical society will be offering tourists train rides to Norwood and Ottawa.
Hank the steam engine will depart Baldwin at 9:30 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. for Norwood, which is the limit of its coal-fired, 1,200-gallon water tank. Visitors will also have the option of an air-conditioned dinner car pulled by a diesel-powered engine that runs to Ottawa at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Between trains, Midland Railway volunteers have set up a nine-hole putt-putt golf course for the kids, and will sell refreshments near the model railroad exhibition tent.
On Saturday, James and Wendy Campbell, of Atchison, managed to get in a ride behind Hank before the afternoon heat set in, and said their six-year-old son and five-year-old nephew enjoyed it. The ride took them through woods, a field of sunflowers, and the kids got a kick out of Hank’s belching smoke and blasting train whistle. “It was scenic,” James said.
For some visitors, just riding the train isn’t enough. Midland Railway also offers qualified train enthusiasts the chance to actually take up the dirty job of shoveling coal and operating the locomotive — for $150 a ticket. John Gramling, the retired Ashley, Ind., contractor who rebuilt Hank along with his son, said he sometimes feels guilty about letting train buffs pay to work on the train, but the tickets sell out quickly.
“In some respects, I almost feel like we’re taking advantage of people.” Gramling said. “On the other hand, I’ve had people thank me 10 times for the chance to shovel coal. So if they are getting enjoyment out of it, I’m willing to let them.”
The weekend event and the money raised by ticket sales are a fundraiser for the nonprofit Midland Railway, but also a prime chance to carry out the historical group’s mission, said Allen Kinsley, Midland Railway’s marketing director. “This is one way to bring people in and do the things we’re chartered to do, which is educate people on the history of railroads,” Kinsley said. “Steam locomotives haven’t been used on the rails since the late 1950s. This will be the second time in 62 years a steam locomotive has been on these tracks.”
For Crawford, the retired Kansas City postal service employee, it was a chance to reconnect with his younger self that he thought he'd never get. “Railroading was a way of life,” he said after riding from Baldwin to Ottawa and back.
He said he’ll keep coming back to ride again whenever he has the chance.
Tickets on Hank the steam engine train are $20 for adults and $10 for children ages two to 11. Tickets on the diesel engine train are $16 for adults and $8 for children. For more information, call 913-721-1211 or visit midlandrailway.org.