By Sue Botos
If not for the cellphones and digital cameras, the scene at the old Rocky River railroad station on Mother’s Day might have been reminiscent of another time.
As during the heyday of the Nickel Plate Railroad, in the 1930s and 1940s passengers mingled with onlookers as they awaited steam locomotive No. 765, pulling the “Nickel Plate Limited” on a 110-mile round trip to Bellevue, Ohio, and back.
According to Beachcliff Market Square marketing manager Bill Brink, one of the passengers, tickets for the excursion, which ran from $99 to $249, sold out within three days. “They started with over 300 and soon had that many on the wait list,” Brink said. More restored cars were added, and the final passenger roster topped 650.
Bill Kovacs, a former engineer and conductor for what is now Norfolk Southern, was helping direct the flow of traffic as passengers showed their tickets to grab parking spots in the Beachcliff Market Square garage. Kovacs had ridden the train Saturday during a journey for railroad employees, retirees and their families.
“It wasn’t bad,” recalled the Brecksville resident, predicting that these passengers would have “an interesting experience,” but adding that they won’t get the full treatment. He said the restored cars are now climate-controlled, and the windows are kept shut. “I prefer more of an experience with the open windows. You get to smell the engine. It’s closer to the feel,” he stated.
Other train veterans and enthusiasts swapped stories, and some onlookers munched on breakfast while the anticipation of the train’s arrival mounted.
The No. 765 was built in Lima, Ohio, during the last months of World War II to haul freight. It was restored by the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Railroad Historical society in 1979 and offers excursions throughout Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio. The Rocky River to Bellevue run was the only Ohio trip this year.
For Bellevue residents Dennis and Angie Ruck, it was a back-and-forth kind of day, as they got up at 5:30 a.m., made the hour-and-a-half trip to Rocky River to ride the train home, then back to Rocky River, where another drive to Bellevue awaited.
“We’ve always wanted to take the train,” said Dennis Ruck, adding that this was to be their first trip on a steam engine. He added that he has lived in Bellevue for 18 years and has never visited the Mad River & Nickel Plate Railroad Museum – the destination for the day, where a box lunch would be served.
According to information provided by the Rocky River Historical Society, the Nickel Plate made its debut in October 1882, the same year the Rocky River station was built. Originally known as the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad, it’s said that the name “Nickel Plate” came from a Norwalk Chronicle editorial, which referred to a “double-track, nickel-plated railroad.”
“That puff of steam is so awe-inspiring,” commented Perrin Vezi, who along with her husband Dave is a veteran train traveler. “The steam engine is so animated,” Dave Vezi commented.
At about 8:50 a.m., the word came that the No. 765 was five minutes out, running a bit behind schedule. (Another difference from the old days was a smartphone app that follows the train’s progress). Police cleared away photographers and others close to the tack, then, far down the rails, a headlight appeared, growing larger as the steam-wreathed engine roared past the station, vintage restored cars in tow.
As it rolled to a stop, passengers scrambled to find their car, and photographers swarmed, capturing every angle of the train from its massive wheels (about as tall as a 6-foot person) to the hissing front of the engine, bearing the numbers 765.
After all were aboard, the haunting steam whistle announced its departure as the train rolled off to Bellevue, the small, white Rocky River station, now an office for Norfolk Southern railroad, becoming deserted once more.
At about 4:10 p.m., the train returned to a group of about 100 onlookers, happy passengers disembarking. “It was a fantastic trip,” Brink commented. He said that the trip to the museum, which was outdoors, was cut short partially due to the cold weather, featured a walk-thorough of an old post office car and a World War II troop carrier.
The passengers then returned to their cars as the train, sounding its whistle again, disappeared into a cloud of steam.