Story and Photographs by Chris Dees
The Great Northwest!!! Pine forests, mountain grades of four and five percent, logging railroads… that’s a reason for any railfan to pack for the weekend with the cameras, scanners, and favorite overalls. And if the trip would feature one of those fantastic Shay locomotives tackling steep grades – that would make this trip even better. Well, the weekend before Fourth of July was just such an event for myself – and it was a LOT closer than Oregon, Idaho, or even Washington. How about a 90-minute drive just north of Lafayette?
Whoa!!! What’s this regarding mountain grades and logging locomotives? Everyone knows that northern Indiana is nothing but flat fields of corn. Well the Hesston Steam Museum in Hesston, Indiana, allows even the hardest core steam fan to get his or her fix of that familiar smell of coal smoke. And with short (but steep) grades, the full-size and scale-size trains give passengers a way to experience mountain steam railroading in the Northwest Indiana county of Laporte.
The desire of a few local steam buffs to perpetuate the use of steam power necessitated the purchase of suitable land for an annual reunion in 1956. Twenty two acres was purchased and hundreds of thorn apple trees cleared. A dam was built in Mud Creek to form Duck Lake as a source of water for the engines. The group, then called La Porte County Threshermen, held their first show and reunion in 1957. Traction engines were the main feature and provided most of the power. A sawmill was added in 1959, the electric plant in 1961, and the Browning crane in 1962.
At the suggestion of Bruce Achor, a couple of members purchased a steam locomotive from Elliott Donnelley of Lake Forest, IL in 1964. With Donnelley’s generous financial assistance during 1965-1968, the remainder of the 155 acre site was purchased, and a unique dual gauge (24″/36″) railroad was constructed. The La Porte County Historical Steam Society was chartered as a not-for-profit organization on December 16, 1968, and the original La Porte County Threshermen club was absorbed and dissolved. In 1969, IRS granted recognition as a 501(c)-3 not-for-profit corporation.
Hesston keeps the memory of narrow gauge steam railroads alive. If you’re a steam fan or long to relive your days of youth at your favorite amusement park, you’ll love the sights, sounds and smells as you ride over hills, past lakes, and through farm fields on a two and a half mile journey back in time. You’ll love it!