Where Trains Go To Play<META NAME="description" CONTENT="feature story on Indiana Live Steamers at Johnson County Park"><META NAME="keywords" CONTENT="feature story, Indiana Live Steamers, steam locomotive models, Johnson County Park, model trains">

"WHERE TRAINS GO TO PLAY"

Published in the Indianapolis Star (StarSouth), Oct. 22, 2003 ©

         The black, hip-high locomotive clicks down the narrow-gauge track, gray smoke puffing steadily from its stack as it winds through a clump of trees at Johnson County Park.

         John Huizenga, the sharp features of his face already showing a thin glaze of coal dust, sits on the engineer's seat as his latest creation, a one-fifth-scale replica of a steam-powered locomotive used by logging operations in the early 20th century, approaches a curve at the north end of the park track. He stops briefly to lean down and throw a switch, then heads into the wind and the rest of the shakedown run before the evening's public runs, turning his back on the half-set sun as he rounds the long, easy curve.

         Huizenga, dressed in a red-plaid flannel shirt, striped railroad cap and heavy gloves, looks the part of a full-sized trainman from another century. Reaching down to scoop a miniature shovelful of coal chips into the locomotive's boiler only reinforces the illusion of a time when steam locomotives ruled the rails and airplanes were only barnstorming novelties.

         The 56-year-old mechanical engineer from Hendricks County, along with other members of the Indiana Live Steamers, is tuning up for the night's train rides through the park's "haunted forest," a Halloween season event that wraps up the public appearances of the club and its fleet of scaled-down trains for the year.

         When he emerges from the thick woods at the south end of the track, Huizenga pulls to a stop at the scaled-down train station, his steam engine relieving itself with a thick, whistling plume of steam that shoots straight up into the dwindling light of dusk. The scene and the wide smile on his engineer's face paint an indelible portrait of his passion for trains, and that of his fellow members of the train club that now calls the county park home.

         "Well, I love to build things, and I love trains, and I like getting together with the guys," the builder of five scaled-down locomotives, so far, explains. "So, it gives me an outlet for all three of those. That's why we do it.

         "Plus, we're trying to preserve live steam for current generations to enjoy."

         After he refills his locomotive with water, Huizenga drives off toward the club's storage shed, crossing Cabin Street to the blinking of automatic flasher lights and the accompaniment of warning bells. While he stocks up on coal, another Live Steamer, Dave Kirch, works inside the roomy building whose floor is covered with some of the 10 knee-high trains that club members run on the nearly one mile of track at the county park in all but the harshest winter months.

         The collection of one-eighth-scale trains - Huizenga's oversized model is the exception rather than the rule here - runs the gamut of American rail history. And Kirch knows quite a bit of the history himself.

         The 56-year-old home builder who lives near Trafalgar can readily provide background on the "grasshopper" train model sitting toward the back of the storage building, a train with a green vertical boiler based on an early locomotive from the 1820s. Like the other Live Steamers, his interest in trains is an endless, unbroken track.

         "I was always interested in trains," says the train enthusiast, from behind wire-rimmed glasses. "And I like to build and challenge myself to do things. So, I bought myself a lathe and a mill and through friends like John learned all the techniques I needed to do machine work, because that's what it takes to build one of these locomotives."

         A member of the Indiana Live Steamers since 1984, Kirch estimates he spends six or seven hours a week on his hobby. "Probably more than that in the summer," adds the smiling man who has built a working model of a diesel train that runs on batteries and also works on club projects at the railroad layout that winds around the tract dedicated to the grownup version of all those electric train sets in basements across America.

         In front of the storage building, Bill Lesburgh, a home remodeler from Helmsburg with a thin white mustache that swoops down to the corners of his chin, puts the finishing touches on a black locomotive being readied for public rides this October night. Lesburgh, 57, is the current president of the Indiana Live Steamers, which moved its trains and track from a location east of Martinsville to Johnson County Park five years ago.

         "Our old track was a little small and didn't have the potential for expansion we have here," he explains.

         Expansion of their model railroading is definitely on the minds of Lesburgh and the other club members. The president of the 46-year-old Indiana Live Steamers outlines plans to add another mile of track at the south end of the site by next September, with another addition to follow that will increase the total mileage to nearly three miles.

         The upcoming expansion will include installation of a three-ton, 36-foot bridge across a ravine - Huizenga is constructing the bridge and Kirch the foundations for it, Lesburgh notes. The added track will benefit both the club members, who number 25-30, the president points out, but the public as well by enhancing the public rides offered one Saturday a month from April to October and at special events like the Heartnut Festival in the fall and the haunted forest attraction before Halloween.

         The projects are another step in improving what is already the largest Live Steamers group in Indiana, a collection of train buffs whose tracks into large-model railroading come from all directions. "Eclectic," is how Lesburgh begins his description of the membership, pausing long enough to let a laugh flare the ends of his swooping mustache, "A little bit of everything. Only one of our members is actually in the train profession.

         "The rest of us are anything and everything under the sun. The one thing that ties us together is trains. We just fell in love with them when we were kids, and it just stuck with us."

         By nightfall, Lesburgh, Huizenga and the other club members on hand have lined up their miniature trains in the station, where scores of kids and parents are already lined up to ride off through the woods on seven-and-a-half-inch-wide tracks, at three to four miles per hour. Huizenga leads the way, the gauges in front of him glowing red in the dark as he gets ready to pull out with the first load of passengers.

         The moment is one the Live Steamers live for. "I love to operate a steam engine," Huizenga says, before he sounds the shrill train whistle and heads off into the darkness like the slower-moving ghost of Casey Jones, "and this is the only way I get to do it."

         If that doesn't sum it up for the band of amateur railroaders, a bumper sticker on one club member's pickup truck out in the parking lot does: "If There Are No Trains in Heaven, Then I Don't Want to Go!"

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