LIMA — Nickel Plate Road Engine 779 rolled up 677,095 miles hauling freight between May 13, 1949, when it was the last steam engine to leave the Lima Locomotive Works, and 1958, when the Nickel Plate retired its steam power.
Its last few miles took it back to Lima’s Lincoln Park. “Since it started here, it is fitting it should spend its remaining days here,” a spokesman for Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corp., the successor of the Lima Locomotive Works, told The Lima News March 8, 1960.
Lima in the 1960s was a fitting place for railroads. “Eighty-four trains rumble through Lima daily,” the News observed Oct. 25, 1964, “including 67 freight trains and 17 passenger. This averages out to one train every 17 minutes.” In the 1960s, getting from here to there in Lima usually involved a wait at a railroad crossing. The railroads — Nickel Plate, B&O, Erie-Lackawanna, D.T. & I. and Pennsylvania — employed 800 people in Lima, among them John H. Keller, who would be a driving force behind the Lincoln Park railroad exhibit.
And Lincoln Park, with easy access to the D. T. & I. Railroad on its northern boundary, was a fitting place for the exhibit.
The park was dedicated in July 1909. It was the site of rallies, revivals, concerts, rabbit and dog shows, and dances — lots of dances.
Rose Mort, Lima’s “Sunshine Lady” presided over her “Victory over Handicaps” picnic in the park in the 1940s and early ‘50s. Mort began the picnics in her backyard in 1941 but the event outgrew that venue. In June 1951, Mort, “blind, deaf and suffering from cancer” according to the News, presided over her last picnic in Lincoln Park from a stretcher. Between 300 and 400 people attended. Mort died Aug. 11, 1952.
By the mid-‘50s, the park was beginning to show its age. The news noted in 1955 that the dances for teenagers continued despite poor lighting and a leaking roof in the pavilion. The 1950s also saw the devastation of Dutch Elm disease. More than 100 blighted elms were removed from Faurot and Lincoln parks in the early 1960s.
However, the early 1960s also saw the revival of the Tri-Ward Boosters Club and a plan to obtain the last of the locomotives produced in Lima — Nickel Plate Engine 779.
In May 1963, the Tri-Ward Boosters, originally formed in 1930, were rejuvenated. “Lincoln Park Improvement will be one of the key aims of the newly reactivated Tri-Ward Boosters Club …,” a spokesman told the News on May 29, 1963. “The first major project to be undertaken will be a general cleanup of the park.”
“The club cleaned up the west end of Lincoln Park, putting special emphasis on the northwest corner where an alleged hobo jungle was maintained by transients using D. T. & I. Railroad freight trains,” the News reported Sept. 17, 1963. The boosters also would aid in other park improvements, including installing a new roof on an old railroad depot that became part of the rail exhibit.
On March 30, 1960, the News reported, a delegation of five Limaites — J.A. MacDonell, president of the Allen County Historical Society; B-L-H executive Perry Percy; Charles Guy of the association of commerce; Allen County Museum Curator Joe Dunlap; and Keller, a Nickel Plate employee and member of the board of the historical society — traveled to Cleveland to discuss obtaining engine 779 with Nickel Plate officials.
Three years after they began, the negotiations with the railroad paid off. “Mayor William Nungester today recommended City Council release the Nickel Plate Railroad from a contract covering lands which dated back to 1880,” the News noted April 10, 1963. “The mayor’s recommendation was in effect formal settlement of an agreement which will provide the city with a prized railroad exhibit to be displayed in Lincoln Park.”
The contract in question said the Nickel Plate would pay Lima $80,000 if it ever moved its shops and roundhouse out of Lima, according to a Sept. 4, 1963, article in the Toledo Blade. The Nickel Plate closed its Lima facilities in south Lima in 1957-58. The city agreed to void the contract in return for the 250-ton locomotive.
Even before the deal was sealed, the city was preparing for the locomotive’s arrival. The city planning commission in July 1963 approved construction of a temporary spur line from the D. T. & I. Railroad into Lincoln Park “to provide access for the moving of a permanent railroad exhibit into the area,” the News wrote July 11, 1963.
Besides engine 779, the permanent railroad exhibit would include a caboose produced at Lima’s Lafayette Car Works in 1882 and a rail car built by the Pullman Co. in Chicago in 1883. “For several years, the (rail car) was the luxurious traveling home of Chauncey M. DePew, president of the New York Central Railroad,” the News noted in an Aug. 5, 1973, article. “The car has a mahogany interior, a dining room that seated eight, a stainless steel kitchen and two staterooms with a shower between.”
After the Nickel Plate painted and reconditioned 779 at Bellevue and at its Calumet, Ill., shops the locomotive returned to Lima in August 1963 and was stored at the Lima Ordnance Modification Center while its shelter was constructed in Lincoln Park. B-L-H workers cast a new builder’s plate for the locomotive. The original plate, the News wrote Aug. 16, 1963, “fell victim to a souvenir hunter while the engine was in storage at Conneaut for nearly five years.”
In September 1964, the D. T. & I. donated its old Uniopolis depot to the exhibit. The following June, the News reported June 17, 1965, “workmen from the (Tri-Ward) boosters organization will conduct an old-fashioned ‘barn-raising’ type of activity, installing a new roof on the station house section of the exhibit.”
“Persons waiting to view Locomotive 779, last of the 4, 787 steam locomotives built in Lima by predecessors of the Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corp., will have to delay plans until next spring …,” the newspaper noted Oct. 18, 1965. “Scheduled to be ready for exhibit this fall under a specially constructed shelter at Lincoln Park, the train is still undergoing final painting at the old Lima Ordnance Plant.”
The city and Tri-Ward boosters, meanwhile, had been busy in Lincoln Park. A pedestrian crosswalk was placed across Shawnee Street, which bisects the park, playgrounds were developed on the park’s west side, existing picnic areas and restrooms were refurbished, horseshoe and volleyball courts were installed, and new lights were added.
Finally, in late June 1966, No. 779 was moved to its permanent display in Lincoln Park. The exhibit was dedicated July 10, 1966.
In July 2004, the exhibit was rededicated and renamed in honor of Keller, the longtime Nickel Plate employee, union official and member of the historical society, who had been so influential in bringing it into existence. Keller died in 2002.