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The Man Behind The WiFi: Deshler Crossroads Park

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Above: Greg Zoll is responsible for maintaining the park’s WiFi connection, landscaping, and other miscellaneous tasks. He and several other important area residents are what keep this park open to the public.

Greg Zoll, long time volunteer at Deshler, Ohio’s famous Crossroads Park, wears many hats. For years, he has been assisting the Bartlow Township Historical Society in maintaining the hallowed ground. In this tiny town of 1,800 people, two of CSX Transportation’s busiest mainlines intersect. North to South is the Toledo Subdivision, while the East/West mainline is divided by the Willard to the East and Garrett Subdivision at the diamond.

Below: Deshler Crossroads Park as seen from an aerial drone view.DCIM100MEDIADJI_0039.JPG

Deshler is unique because it is run entirely by volunteers and it is not a city park. It takes a lot of time and effort to keep the grounds well maintained and clean for visitors. Another unique feature of the park is that camp fires are allowed and there are no fences. Railfans are asked to be present at all times when fires are 13239312_10154168789152463_1426361184356429073_nlit and are also asked to clean up after pets. The Pet Owner is a notorious offender in leaving unwanted deposits behind.

On a typical day, one can expect to see anywhere from sixty to eighty trains in a twenty four hour period at this intersection. It’s a place railfans all over the world make a pilgrimage to visit. In our most recent YouTube upload, we interviewed Zoll for an overview of the park, a short history of how it was created, and how people can continue to support it. To make a donation, please send a check to PO Box 131 Deshler, OH 43516 or drop a cash donation in the box located at the park (seen in the image on the right).

Watch the video interview with Greg Zoll below:

Steam Locomotive Ride Along

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Above: Norfolk Southern used this beautiful streamlined steam locomotive, owned by the Virginia Museum of Transportation, to haul several mainline trips over their southeastern mainlines in 2016.

In this video, ride along on a famous American steam locomotive on the former Southern Railway mainline between Asheville and Grovestone Siding, North Carolina. Hear the whistle blow and watch the wheels rolls as the train makes its way through winding curves, steep grades, and large crowds of admiring fans at each grade crossing.

Death of the High Hoods

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Above: Norfolk Southern #5168 still retains its high-short hood at Bryan, Ohio. All photos © 2016 by Drayton Blackgrove.

In early August of 2016, Norfolk Southern Corp. announced an auction to sell off un-wanted, older EMD locomotives from their roster. The list of locomotives on Black Mountain’s website included fifty former Southern Railway high hood GP38-2 diesels. It’s absolutely heartbreaking for most railfans to see the majority of the class disappearing from the mainline… But, the writing was on the wall.

Since 2014, Norfolk Southern has actively been rebuilding their fleet of non-RC equipped high hood four axels, in an effort to increase visibility and the longevity of their lifespan. Much like the Spartan Cab SD40-2 rebuilds, these four axels have received similar cabs, but with much shorter noses. “Stubbed nosed” is what the crews are calling them. These days, it seems that as long as a locomotive has air-conditioning, crews are happy with whatever they get in the yard.

Below: Norfolk Southern #5074, a former Southern Railway High Hood GP38-2 at Jackson, MI.

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Though the locomotives Norfolk Southern is disposing of in this August 18th auction are high hoods, most of them had been recently shopped by Altoona or Chattanooga – with fresh, Horsehead paint and upgraded electrical systems. It makes you wonder why some of these units aren’t being considered for the rebuild program.

A few months ago, we filmed Norfolk Southern #5096 in Bryan, Ohio. We chased the locomotive and a short local freight from Bryan to Waterloo, Indiana on a chilly winter day. Though this engine is not on the list of the locomotives to be auctioned off by the Class I, it was still great to see an old Southern locomotive still earning her keep on the mainline. Since these locomotives will soon become extinct and resemble virtually every other Class I’s yard power, try to catch them while you can. You can watch the video of #5096 below:

Go West: Three Arizona Shortlines

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Featured photo: After interchanging with the FMI Railroad at Clifton, the Arizona Eastern departs for Lordsburg. All photos © 2016 by Michael Polk.

After twenty two hours of consecutive driving, Michael Polk and I had finally arrived in Eastern Arizona. The adrenaline had finally kicked in after the exhausting drive with little to no sleep. At the sight of the first train on our cross country odyssey, we knew we were in for an adventure of a lifetime.

Descending the nearly 5% grade through Morenci, The Freeport-McMoran Industrial Railroad made their presence known on the way to Clifton, Arizona. It was like watching a train descend Saluda. In fact, this is one of the steepest railroad grades in the United States.

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Above: The FMI slowly descends the 5% grade from the mine into Morenci, Arizona.

The Freeport-McMoran Industrial Railroad, commonly referred to by their reporting mark of FMI, is the result of one of the largest copper mines in the world. After first discovering copper ore here in the 1870s, investors from the east settled here and formed the towns of Clifton and Morenci to house thousands of miners.

By 1879, the railroad finally reached Clifton in the form of a narrow gauge line to the smelter and became one of the first steam-powered railroad in the State of Arizona. This railroad would eventually become the FMI. By the early 1880s, the Arizona & New Mexico Railroad built a branch line from Lordsburg, New Mexico to Clifton, making the town a terminus. There, the railroad would interchange with the mine’s own industrial line.

Below: The FMI Railroad slowly descends into Clifton, after snaking around the steep grade at Morenci.24585844591_61e46173ec_o

With the newly built railroad, it made shipping the ore much easier. Before the steel ribbons reached Clifton, the only way to the mainline railroad in the south was by mule. Often, these mule teams were attacked by Apache Indian tribes en-route. By the 19-teens, the Southern Pacific Railroad acquired the branch line and continued interchange with the mining railroad at Clifton.

This line was operated by Southern Pacific and then Union Pacific until 2008, when Iowa Pacific purchased the Clifton Subdivision as part of their Arizona Eastern Railway.

In 1988, Southern Pacific sold the line from Globe to Lordsburg to the KYLE Railroad, which eventually became part of RailAmerica in 2001. RailAmerica then sold the line in 2004 to Iowa Pacific Holdings, who owned and operated the shortline until 2011. The line was then sold for over $90,000,000 to Genesee & Wyoming Inc., the current operators of the Arizona Eastern.

24362179540_e2d30d1246_oAbove: The AZER slowly ascends the steep grades out of Clifton as it heads south.

The Arizona Eastern is a railfan favorite because of their unique standard cab Dash 8-40B’s. The classy orange, black, and yellow of the Genesee & Wyoming’s corporate scheme also make for a special touch. The railroad interchanges with the FMI every day throughout the week, traveling up and down steep grades and tight curves to reach Clifton Yard. The railroad brings loads for the mine and hauls away materials produced by it.

Truly, watching these two railroads work together is an amazing experience and I wouldn’t have wanted to witness it with anyone but Mike. And it was only the beginning. Later that morning, we traveled about an hour to Ray, AZ to watch the Copper Basin Railway return from a mine run out of Ray. By this time in the day, it was 73°F! It was a total contrast to the sub-zero temperatures of the midwest that we had experienced just days before.

The Copper Basin has been independently operated since 1986, when Kennecott Copper handed over the operation. This stretch of railroad was originally built by the Phoenix & Eastern Railway in 1904 and was leased to the Santa Fe until 1907, when the Southern Pacific took over the subsidiary company.

24691455535_41f6a3ec25_oAbove: The Copper Basin Railway drops the ore deposits at the Winkelman dumper facility.

Today, the railway is one of the most photographed shortlines in the country and is a railfan favorite because of the company’s friendly attitude to photographers. The two of us were very thankful to the company for allowing us such access to their railroad.

At Hayden, the train slowly runs through the dumper. Here, the ore deposits are dumped and sorted out through a smelting process. The ore is in its most natural form here, but will be refined and made pure for manufacturing purposes.

Much of the reason that the Copper Basin has been so successful is due to “Jack” Jacobson, the company’s Chief Operations Officer. With his great work ethic and mutual respect for his employees, his railroad has become one of the most efficient and well-managed operations in the country.

In all, this was an amazing first day on our cross country road trip west. We spent over three weeks exploring Arizona, California, Nevada, and Colorado – aquiring some of our best work yet. Subscribe for more videos from the “Go West” series here: http://www.YouTube.com/user/DelayInBlock

Watch the Video Here:

Cab Ride on the Illinois Central

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Above: Michael Polk and Craig Willett pose for a photo before the train departed Horn Lake, MS.

In our most recent YouTube upload, take a cab ride on the former Illinois Central passenger main between Horn Lake and Batesville, Mississippi. As you make your journey south, you’ll go through the luscious green countryside, over bridges, and through small towns on this modern-day City of New Orleans, operated by Iowa Pacific’s Grenada Railroad. Your crew on this journey will be student engineer Michael Polk and Iowa Pacific locomotive consultant Craig Willett. With a train this sharp, it’s hard to believe this wasn’t recorded fifty years ago.

Watch below:

Illinois Central Time Machine: 1956 or 2016?

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Above: A Premier Rails Pullman Porter poses for a photograph after the all-day excursion from Horn Lake to Grenada, Mississippi. Premier Rails is owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings and provides first class service on all passenger trains operated by the company.

On June 5th, 2016, The Grenada Railroad hosted an excursion between Horn Lake and Grenada, Mississippi. The leisurely, all-day excursion traveled over the original Illinois Central passenger main to New Orleans. The famous train, named after The City of New Orleans its self, once traveled these very rails at speeds up to 80MPH.

Iowa Pacific Holdings owns The Grenada Railroad, the current operators of this historic line. Ed Ellis, President of IPH, spent his childhood watching trains on this very railroad as a young boy in Paducah, Kentucky. His dream of working for the Illinois Central Railroad eventually came true and he spent most of his career building a name for himself. Over time, he gained a lot of experience and even became the VP of Amtrak. In the early 2000s, he and his business partners formed Iowa Pacific and own many shortline railroads all over the globe. It was only fitting that when the Grenada Railroad line was put up for sale, Mr. Ellis purchased it.

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Above:  The train crew from the day’s successful excursion pose for a photo at Grenada, MS.

Even though Mr. Ellis has had experience operating railroads in all corners of the United States, his favorite still remains the old IC. Because of his love and affection for the “central,” he chose to have all of his company’s equipment to be painted in Illinois Central livery.

It doesn’t get much more historic than this: an Illinois Central passenger train operating over the original route of The City of New Orleans and the same line Ed Ellis grew up watching trains on, an entirely matching consist, two EMD E8A diesels, and an Illinois Central magnetic decal on the front of the #515.

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Above: Engineer Craig Willett climbs up into the engine compartment of E8A #515. This historic locomotive was built in 1953 and has C&NW heritage, but wears Illinois Central livery under ownership of Ed Ellis’ Iowa Pacific Holdings.

On board, the passengers were enjoying their journey south. In these beautifully restored passenger coaches, it really did feel like 1956 again. With the countryside rolling by and the sound of the Nathan P5 air horn, one could almost feel like they had traveled back in time. Enjoy the feature-length video presentation on The City of Grenada below:

Go West! A Trip of a Lifetime

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Go west, they said.

This past January and February – I did exactly that. Accompanied by one of my best friends, Michael Polk, we set out on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to the great American west. Basically, we spent twenty five days of shooting railroad lines we had always dreamed of capturing – and it all came at the perfect timing.

Below: Mike and me as we rolled through Oklahoma.

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I had just recently returned to my hometown after changing schools, deciding that pursuing a business major at community college would be a better decision than staying at an expensive, private film school. I had just settled in when I got the invitation from Mike, who had just been furloughed by Iowa Pacific.

Because of a rough first quarter, the railroad industry all over the country was struggling and as a result – most railroads had to let people go. The Chicago Terminal Railroad, where Mike was originally employed, was no different. After six months of service, Mike was temporarily let go.

Not letting his spirits down, he used the downtime to explore – and invited me along in the process. It was literally the perfect storm: we both had the time to do it. I decided to take online courses for the semester, so school could go along with me. We were set. Mike began planning our cross country journey.

Over a period of two weeks, Mike decided we would travel from Illinois all the way to California, by the modern day version of Route 66. We used several different highways, but for the most part, they all followed the original outline of the old Route 66. We left Mike’s apartment in Chicago Ridge on the 24th of January, after visiting a model railroad club in Milwaukee earlier that evening. We departed exactly at midnight.

 

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Above: Mike runs a local freight train on NAPM’s huge club layout before we departed for our trip.

Our drive would be a long one. Mike’s goal was to have us in Clifton, Arizona by 7AM on Monday, the 26th. It would basically be a 22 hour drive from Chicagoland to Clifton. What’s in Clifton, you ask? Well, two amazing railroads: the Genesee & Wyoming-owned Arizona Eastern and the Freeport Mcmoran Sierrita Mining Operations Railroad. The two interchange every morning at Clifton, exchanging loads and empties. The FMI Railroad serves one of the largest copper mines in the world and is owned completely by the mining company. To meet the AZER at Clifton Yard, the FMI must traverse down an extremely steep grade – by my estimates, at least 5%.

We are both young, so we decided we would take shifts. I would drive four or five hours, then Mike would switch on. We had cleared a small space in the back of my Ford Escape to lay a yoga matt down for more comfort. I drove the first leg of the trip, switching with Mike northeast of St. Louis by about a hour. He led the way until morning. We then found ourselves along the former Frisco mainline in Claremore, Oklahoma. We photographed a few intermodal trains and even saw a Tier 4 unit. Being from Michigan, this was my first exposure to the new “eco-friendly” brutes.

Below: Our sleeping accommodations for the long drive westward.

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Continuing on our journey west, we made our way through Oklahoma City – seeing deadlines upon deadlines of locomotives. The railroads were hurting and it wasn’t just the shortlines. I guess you could say they lost their “thunder” (OKC pun totally intended). It was evident that this early period of 2016 was one of the worst the industry had seen since 2009. After making our way through OK, we entered the panhandle of Texas. From a map, Texas looked big. But in person – it felt never ending. And we didn’t even leave the panhandle! On our way, we took sunset pictures with giant, steel crosses as the golden orb slowly disappeared beneath the horizon.

Around dusk, we stopped in Amarillo. This was my first time in the Lone Star State, so Mike decided we should have an authentic Texan dinner. And what better way to celebrate our passage through than a big texan steak? We ate dinner at the Big Texan Ranch off of I-40 and onto the original Route 66, stuffing ourselves with protien so that we wouldn’t need breakfast. By this time, we had already been driving about sixteen hours straight – and we still had a lot more to go.

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Above: Mike and me at the Big Texan Ranch in Amarillo. Everything is bigger in Texas!

On through New Mexico we would go. By this time, it was pitch black out. The only thing visible besides passing car headlights were the faint outlines of mesas and rock faces. This was the west that I had always heard and read about. Dry, barren, and almost ancient. It was almost easy to imagine a tribe of Native American Indians riding the open desert outside our car window.

I would drive this portion – as Mike became tired from driving about twenty hours, consecutively. As we made our way through New Mexico, we would drive through the town of Roswell – the famed location of a supposed extra-terrestrial landing in the late 40s. They streetlights were illuminated heads of “little green men.” Mike and I both believe in the supernatural, but we also have an interest in conspiracy theories. Needless to say, our conversations that night ranged from ET’s, to Area 51, to the “black eye children.”

Finally, we crossed into Arizona around 5AM. Another hour and we would be in Clifton. We had almost made it…and our journey had only just begun. In about a hour and thirty minutes, we would be taking pictures of some of the most incredible and beautiful railroads in the country.

Arriving into Clifton, we did a bit of scouting. We roamed through the town of Morenci, where the big mine was located. In the distance, we could faintly hear the unmistakable whine of EMD prime-movers. It was the FMI and they were ready to go, just as Mike’s contacts had predicted. We made our way to Morenci Hill and waited. But we wouldn’t be alone – a cat kept us company while we waited for the train to appear. After twenty minutes, the faint sounds of the locomotives became louder: it was train time.

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Above: The FMI Railroad’s train slowly rolls down the steep, 5+% grade at Morenci.

Stay tuned for more blogposts and stunning photographs from Mike and me’s out-west adventure. Where’s the video, you ask? After all, that’s what we are known for at DIB. We are currently in production for this amazing railfan film, set to be released on DVD by this fall. Thanks for stopping by.

-Drayton Blackgrove

Upcoming Project: N&W 611

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611. It’s a number synonymous with railroaders and railfans alike. A number that brings chills of awe to the spine. As a twenty year old, I am blessed to be in a generation of renaissance, where steam is once again allowed on the mainline. I am even more blessed to see “The J” alive and well in 2016.

When I hear the number 611, I think of elegance and efficiency. Not only that, but of graceful power. In the late 40s, The East End Shops of the Norfolk & Western Railway became the first railroad to independently combine those three things into one machine. Yes, the Pennsy and various others built their own steam locomotives – but not to the same degree as the N&W.

In my humble opinion, the 611 is the pinnacle of steam technology. One of the last steam locomotives ever built, the 611 was the answer to the growing need of post-wartime passenger rail traffic on the N&W.

She served her designers well, hauling fast passenger specials over the Blue Ridge grade and appealed widely to the public. Streamlining wasn’t a new idea, but it was a reforming process. By the time the N&W decided to streamline the “Little J’s” (the 4-8-2 Mountain-types), it was already a widely accepted practice in the industry. Railroads were in a fierce, new-era of competition.

In the 1950s, it wasn’t just against themselves: airlines and newly-built interstate highways threatened the livelihood of passenger rail operations. Not only that, but steam was a dying breed. The Norfolk & Western had tried and tested diesel power from EMD a few years prior, but still wasn’t won over by the manufacturer. Therefore, the decision was to stick with steam.

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Above: N&W 611 crosses the Roanoke River Bridge outside of Huddleston, VA on the old Virginian.

The cost to build the engine was almost $2,500,000.00 in today’s money – proving the N&W believed in their people and the quality of the craftsmanship involved. Rolling out of The East End Shops in May of 1950, “The J” would be among the last of the great steam locomotives to be built in the United States. She was, in every essence of the word, a queen of steam. She did what she was designed to do and did it well, but her career would last only nine years, being saved in part by O. Winston Link. Without his efforts and without her derailment and rebuild in 1956, she probably wouldn’t be operating today. That derailment? An engineer suffered a heart-attack while at the throttle, taking a curve too fast and sending the train cascading into the Tug River at Cedar, WV. He was the only fatality.

Fast forward to 2016, 60 years after her major accident that would be a blessing in disguise, the 611 is operating again on Norfolk Southern’s mainline. Thanks to the expertise of Scott Lindsay, his Steam Operations Company, the volunteers, and the Virginia Museum of Transportation – she has been running the rails just as she did when she first rolled out of The East End Shops.

So far this year, the 611 has pulled excursions over former Southern and N&W mainlines, with the highlights being over the Old Fort Loops to Asheville, NC and her triumphant march up the Blue Ridge grades outside of Roanoke. You can see our aerial drone video of the locomotive climbing The Loops below:

This year, we have been working closely with Norfolk Southern’s media department to provide the most breathtaking footage of the locomotive. We are also in negotiations with the Virginia Museum of Transportation in producing an officially licensed documentary, which will tell the complete story of the locomotive and the volunteers who bring her to life. Stay tuned for updates on the project and in the meantime, enjoy this incredible video from on-board locomotive cameras that were mounted on the 611 for her trip out of Asheville:

We look forward to telling the amazing story of one of the most beautiful steam locomotives in the United States. From 1950 to 2016, the Queen of Steam is still inspiring people of all ages – including college students like me! Thanks for stopping by and be sure to support the Virginia Museum of Transportation. You can purchase tickets here: http://www.fireup611.org/.

-Drayton Blackgrove

Iowa Pacific E9s

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Above: Conductor Mike Polk waves from the cab of SLRG #103, a EMD E9 diesel locomotive, now owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings.

Iowa Pacific stores some unique passenger equipment on Chicago Terminal’s property out of Bensenville, Illinois. Owned by Ed Ellis, Iowa Pacific is home to some of the finest pieces of classic American rolling stock, with one of the largest private collections of passenger cars in the country. In addition to the passenger coaches, Iowa Pacific has a large collection of classic EMD E8 and 9 diesel locomotives that are stored on the Chicago Terminal.

On November 15th, after a short visit to Train Fest in Milwaukee, the Delay In Block camera crew was given special access to a rare deadhead move on the Chicago Terminal Railroad. In addition to our cameras, Casey Thomason of Norfolk Southern decided to join in on the chase with a small group of other prominent Chicagoland railfans.

Two of Iowa Pacific’s recently acquired E units, along with a leased B unit, would be transported from Bensenville to Madison, WI over the WSOR. Since the lead locomotives were ex-Wisconson Southern and still wore the bright red and silver of the previous owner, it made for an interesting move. The locomotives and accompanying coaches were to be used on Iowa Pacific’s holiday trains out of Middleton, WI.

Below: This thirty-plus minute video showcases the entire deadhead move out of Chicagoland.

 

Gavin: The Miracle Railfan

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ABOVE: Gavin Steel, the only child in the world with Cystic Fibrosis and DiGeorge Syndrome, stands in awe of the NKP 765. The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society sponsored his first train ride from Buffalo to Corning, NY this last August. 

If you are a nerd like me, you know Superman as being “The Man of Steel.” Since first being introduced by DC Comics in 1938, Superman became an instant sensation in the hearts and minds of children everywhere. Boys and girls all over America were inspired to be just like him: strong, courageous, valiant, and kind. But what does Superman have to do with our beloved 2-8-4 that calls New Haven, Indiana home? It turns out, the planet Krypton sent us a visitor on one of our trips from Buffalo to Corning, New York this August. And his name is Gavin Steel.

To me, East Rochester, NY boy Gavin Steel is a real life superhero. Gavin is the only child in the world to suffer from both Cystic Fibrosis (CF) and DiGeorge Syndrome. Not only does he suffer from these two horrific diseases, Gavin was born with a heart defect and also weighed much, much less than a normal baby should. In fact, his doctors affectionately nicknamed him “tiny baby”. Since his birth, Gavin has been through many major surgeries – more than most of us will go through in our lifetime. Oh, did I mention he is only five years old?

Everyday, Gavin’s parents have to give their son treatments to shake the mucus out of his lungs, which is caused by the CF. Each morning, they hook Gavin up to a machine while he wears a vest, attached by hoses, that make loud noises while it works to clean his lungs out. The process usually takes 20-25 minutes and has to be repeated four times each day. During the treatments, Gavin’s parents like to make the process easier for him by entertaining him with train videos. At only five years old, Gavin is an avid railfan. From Thomas the Tank Engine to watching the real deal go by his house on the CSX, Gavin loves being around trains.

Three years ago, I was involved in a car accident that could very well have ended my life. I was chasing the Pere Marquette 1225 out of Owosso, Michigan and lost control of my vehicle on a dirt road, striking a tree at nearly 50MPH. Not only was it a miracle that I survived, I walked away with only a small piece of glass in my wrist and a few bruises. Later that night, I posted a photo of what was left of my 1995 Nissan Altima to social media and instantly started to receive comments from well-wishers. It is a privilege to meet folks who enjoy my work and it was very encouraging to read the comments people left on my wreckage photo from that night. One of the comments was from Jay Steel, Gavin’s father.

In Jay’s message, he told me about Gavin’s story and how they often play my videos for him when he goes through his treatments. He told me that I needed to be more careful because, “Our family needs you around.” After receiving Jay’s message, I broke down into tears. Here I was, doing this hobby we all love and share, not thinking I would ever accomplish anything great or meaningful in doing so, and this beautiful story of Gavin’s life was introduced to me. I was living life like a normal, healthy teenager, sharing what I love with the world, and yet, somehow, just me being myself touched someone else’s life and helps them get through their days.

While all of this was going on, I started to become more involved with the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society. My Great Grandfather was a locomotive fireman on the Southern Railway and I have always had an interest in trains, especially steam. Thanks to Kelly Lynch, our Communications Director, I was inspired to be part of the organization and have helped volunteer in the best way I know: through digital media. This summer, I had a great opportunity to work alongside Lynch and film the 765 all over the country for a future documentary he is producing for the society. I was able to learn more about the Berkshire than ever before and met a lot of amazing people, who spend hours upon hours of their free time to keep our beloved steam engine running.

Thanks to their efforts, kids everywhere are inspired by the 765 – and Gavin is no exception. On 765’s test run between New Haven, IN and Liepsic, OH, I was able to produce a special railfan video on the locomotive for my YouTube Channel. After editing the video and posting it to YouTube, Gavin’s parents played the it for him during his morning treatment and Gavin instantly fell in love with the engine. One thing led to another and I realized that the Steel family lived only about an hour from Buffalo, where the 765 would be running out of in August. Suddenly, a dream was born: I wanted to send “The Boy of Steel,” on his first, real train ride. And what better way to do it than behind Lima’s finest example of superpower steam?

Gavin and JayABOVE: Gavin and his father, Jay Steel, admire the 765 before boarding the train in Buffalo, New York.

After a lot of planning, the society provided Gavin and his father with two dome-class tickets to ride behind the 765 on the August 1st trip out of Buffalo to Corning, NY. Since the Steel’s lived so close to Buffalo, they invited me to stay at their home instead of a hotel in the area, allowing me to meet “my biggest fan” for the first time. I instantly fell in love with the Steel’s and apparently, they liked me a whole lot, too. Even though Gavin and his family have been through some very hard times, they are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. On Saturday morning, Gavin, his father, and myself departed East Rochester for Buffalo, where the 765 would be boarding. Little did Gavin know, he was not only going to see 765, but ride behind her.

At the yard, Gavin’s face lit up with excitement. Because of his condition, loud noises overload his ear drums, so he had to cover his ears most of the time he was there. Riding on his dad’s shoulders, we walked over to the cab, where senior engineer Rich Melvin stepped down to greet Gavin. “Hello there, little buddy!” Melvin said with a warm smile. “What do you think of the 765?” With a big smile on his face, all Gavin could say was: “YES!” Engineer Melvin then extended his hand while holding a golden ticket and said, “Well, if you really like the 765, how would you like to ride the train today?” Overwhelmed with excitement, Gavin was at a loss for words, awestruck with a smile as big as the Grand Canyon. Rich gave the little boy a big hug and Gavin’s dad thanked engineer Melvin for taking the time to meet his son.

After being handed the golden ticket, the three of us boarded the train for a ride of a lifetime. After departing Buffalo, Gavin and his father walked the train several times over, with Gavin smiling and telling everyone who would listen that, “The engineer gave me this (golden ticket) to ride!” I have never seen someone so excited to be on a train and it meant so much (to me) that we, as a group, were able to give this miracle child his first train ride. You see, the countless hours we put into volunteering on the engine pays off big time, especially when children like Gavin are inspired and educated about the beautiful experience of a scenic, steam-driven train ride.

BELOW: Gavin is presented with a golden ticket to ride the “Erie Limited” excursion train from Buffalo to Corning, New York.Rich and Gavin

For myself and the Steel family, 765 is not just a steam locomotive – it is a dream weaver. For about twelve hours, Gavin and his dad lost all conscious knowledge that he suffers from two, painful and unpredictable diseases. The 765 gave them a peace of mind and a thrill that can never really be explained, just acknowledged by all people who share the common passion of steam railroading. Since his train ride, Gavin’s interest in steam trains has grown ten-fold and he frequently asks when the next time will be for the 765 to come to Buffalo.

This December (2015, we sent Gavin and his family on another, special train ride operated by a non-profit called Operation North Pole (ONP). ONP hosts an event with Union Pacific and Metra alike to give kids with special needs and life-threatening illnesses a magical train ride the the “North Pole.” Through a GoFund Me campaign, our subscribers donated money for the purchase of Amtrak tickets for the family to ride the Lakeshore Limited from their hometown to the event.

So, the next time you see 765 out on the mainline, do not think of her as merely a locomotive. Think of her as a dream weaver, who inspires people all over this great country to donate their time, money, and energy to create life-changing memories for people like the Steel family. I look forward to seeing our locomotive back on the mainline next summer and I have no doubt in my mind that Gavin will be trackside once again to witness her in action in the coming future.

Local TV News Story on Gavin’s First Train Ride: