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Headwaters Junction

Kelly Lynch's ambitious revitalization project

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2010-06-22


Kelly Lynch has trains in his veins. Or maybe it’s the steam from a 1940’s locomotive that chugs through his bloodstream.

Whatever, Kelly Lynch loves trains, and at 24-years-old probably knows more about the massive engines that used to thunder across the United States delivering freight and carrying people than most septuagenarians who actually bore witness to the era.

Lynch is a film maker, designer, and director of public relations for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society. Several years ago, Lynch and a couple collaborators made a 35-minute film called The Passenger, shot in old train stations in Fort Wayne and Buffalo, New York, among other locations (we wrote about the movie in FWR #96). Lynch is also a freelance contractor, working with other railroad preservation groups and operators around the country.

“Yeah, I’ve tried to figure it out,” Lynch says when asked about his interest in old trains and railroads. “Some people have their hobbies for cars or motorcycles or boats or whatever. For me, it’s trains. Trains are just something I’ve always been around.”

Indeed, Lynch’s grandfather, Lawrence "Red" Lynch was the Master Mechanic of Steam Locomotives for the New York Central railroad and also served as a roundhouse foreman outside Chicago for the company. His father, illustrator Dan Lynch, was a part of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society when it was formed in the 70s; he was involved with the first crew that took the old Nickel Plate steam locomotive 765 out of Lawton Park in 1974 where it was gathering rust and bird droppings and restored it to 1940s specs. “He was president (of the FWRRHS) about the time I was born in the early 80s, and I essentially kind of grew up as this steam locomotive was being worked on and operated throughout the country,” Lynch says. “There are photos of me in my very early years on this old passenger coach that my dad purchased and restored.” Now, that same coach travels all around the country behind the 765 steam locomotive that Dan Lynch helped restore.

“The steam engine is a sensory experience,” Lynch continues. “It’s a time machine. It’s thunder and lightning in a bottle.”

The 765 plays a central role in Lynch’s latest project, Headwaters Junction, which has been getting a lot of attention recently.

Headwaters Junction is a $15 million project that would basically transform the “North River” property — the slab of land currently belonging to Omnisource with Clinton on the east, 4th Street to the south, Harrison to the west, and 6th Street on the north — into an area based on Fort Wayne’s transportation heritage. The proposal details a recreation of a turn-of-the-century rail yard with a working train that would not only offer everyday transportation but would be available for special excursions. The whole area would have a turn-of-the-century feel, and offer space for special events and other attractions. There’s even mention of a jazz-themed restaurant in there.

And, on top of all that, Headwaters Junction can also serve a practical function. “The rail is also a short line carrier,” Lynch says. “It’s a freight line. Having a short line operator serving area industry is a major incentive for people who want to locate their businesses in, for example, the Coliseum industrial park. 20 cars a week — for a little guy you could attract all sorts of new businesses.”

Lynch finishes: “There are so many facets and so many possibilities that it’s hard to condense it.”

It’s true — we’ve given you the condensed version of Headwaters Junction here. Ambitious? Sure. In fact, the words “long shot” and “dream” pop up pretty frequently when Lynch talks about it. But Lynch has done his homework, and the reaction he’s received from key figures in city redevelopment and business in the area has been encouraging. “The #1 thing people would respond with is ‘this is the best idea we’ve seen for this property, and it’s the one that makes the most sense’,” Lynch says. “This demolition thing came up in the middle of it, oddly enough.”

Ah, yes. The “demolition thing.”

Central to Lynch’s scheme is the old New York Central freight depot on the corner of Clinton and 4th Streets, the building that was slated for demolition by the property’s owners in late May. The news energized preservationist organizations and their supporters last month,

The warehouse was built in 1913 and is the last relic of what used to be a massive and important railroad yard — ARCH, Fort Wayne’s Historic Preservation organization and one of the entities leading the fight for the building’s survival, has had the depot on its “endangered” list for over a decade.

If the depot were on public property, it would be eligible for a national historic landmark designation. But it’s on the Omnisource property, the same chunk of land north of the St. Mary’s that was at the center of so much debate just a couple years ago. At the time, the City had an option to buy the property, but let the option expire. The building has remained empty for decades, and though at various times through the years businesses or groups have expressed interest in doing something with the depot, none of those ideas, according to the property’s owners, ever went beyond the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” stage, partially because renovating the structure seemed cost prohibitive.

But apparently, the cries of “hey! Wait a minute!” were enough to grant the depot a stay of execution.

The question has been asked: where was Lynch (and everybody else) before all this? That building has been standing there a long time…

But the truth is, Lynch has been working on Headwaters Junction for several years now, meticulously doing his research. In fact, he’s not entirely comfortable with the attention the idea has received; the situation with the depot has exposed Headwaters Junction to scrutiny a little earlier than he would have liked. “I hadn’t planned on going public for about six months,” Lynch says. “Every part of this has been blessed by timing and patience and work so far, so to try to rapidly hustle it along would be disingenuous. I can’t talk to corporate sponsors or do the paper work for federal funding without crossing my ‘t’s’ and dotting my ‘i’s’.”

Lynch began dreaming of the Headwaters Junction about three years ago, as he was following the North River project task force set up to explore possible uses for the Omnisource area. While ideas for a water park or an IMAX theater or (yes) a casino were being tossed around, Lynch started thinking about something his father had told him years ago, how the Fort Wayne Historical Railroad society wanted to buy the old depot and use it as a showcase for the restored 765. “As a creative-type guy, it’s really hard for me to have an idea and not try to see it through,” he laughs. “It just kind of haunts me.”

Lynch tackled it with the same careful planning he’s used with his film and other projects. Of course, the scope of Headwaters Junction was much larger than anything he had worked on before, but he knew what a business proposal looked like; he knew what sort of facts to marshall to make the project look credible, at least on paper; and with his design skills, he knew how to make it look good.

Lynch still didn’t know what anyone does with an idea like this, so he started shopping his plan around to the relevant departments with the City, to city council members, to neighborhood associations and businesses on the Wells Street corridor… Like we said above, they liked what they heard and saw, while recognizing that, yes, renovating that depot — which Lynch still sees as the cornerstone of Headwaters Junction — is a pretty tall order.

But as Lynch points out, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society has plenty of experience in taking abandoned relics, raising the money, and turning them into sustainable and meaningful entities. “The 765 locomotive is a perfect example,” he says. “We’re coming up on 40 years of being what we are and what we do. A building is a different animal, but the effort is very much the same. We’re no strangers to projects like this. We haven’t done buildings — we’ve done freight cars or passenger cars or locomotives — but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.”

The idea of using the depot as a showcase for the restored 765 was one that the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society kicked around years ago. For various reasons, nothing came of the plan, but the image stuck in Lynch’s head. The 765 is better known outside Fort Wayne than it is in its hometown, and Lynch would love to bring it to the city so everyone can experience it. Currently, when the 765 isn’t out traveling the country, it’s housed in a military depot out in New Haven. Lynch says they get a number of field trips and visitors, and those people are very impressed by the massive machine, but… “It’s one thing to walk up to the engine when it’s cold,” Lynch says. “It’s another thing entirely when it’s fired up and it’s making noise and it’s breathing and you hear the whistle and the ground shakes. That stays with you.”

Lynch is only 24, so it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say his interest in steam locomotives and railroads is based on nostalgia — he knows what year it is. But part of the inspiration behind Headwaters Junction and Lynch’s desire to do something with the old depot besides tear it down is rooted in a reverence for history. Like many people, Lynch thinks that Fort Wayne hasn’t capitalized very well on its history, and the railroad yard is a prime example — for a big chunk of the 20th century, Fort Wayne happened there, everyday, and a lot of people don’t know it. “We have the fort, which is evocative of where our name comes from, but after that, what does anybody think of Fort Wayne as today? The rivers? I don’t think there’s anything really visible to the general visitor that they can say ‘Fort Wayne was a railroad town, or a canal town, or #7 of Hitler’s list’ or whatever.”

There are plenty of other cities tapping into their past in order to revitalize their present — Lynch cites that, as far as railroads go, Lancaster Pennsylvania’s Strasburg railroad has proved incredibly successful as a tourist destination, and he also mentions Sacramento, California as a community embracing its railroad history.

But in all his experience working with railroad societies across the country, he hasn’t seen anything quite like what he has in mind for Headwaters Junction. “A lot of towns and cities will have a locomotive, or they’ll have a freight house or a station or some track, but they’ll never have it all together in one location. They’ll never have it tied in so tightly with the city. And even rarer is that it executes a function within the city. It’s more than just a feature ride. It can actually connect places the way railroads used to do.”

Time and time again during our talk, Lynch returns to the fact that he knows Headwaters Junction — the whole thing, with the park, the railyard, etc. — seems like quite a long shot (though at $15 million it’s still significantly less expensive than a $180 million waterpark). Right now, he’d be happy to see the depot saved, and try to go from there. “The plan does not die with the building coming down, but to lose that… it’s a cornerstone of the plan,” he says. “The stay of demolition has been helpful, but at the end of the day, seeing the building saved and repurposed is paramount to this plan, or anybody else’s. A successful enterprise on that corner or in that building could spur other development.”

For more on the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society and the 765, visit fortwaynerailroad.org

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