Our History

 

The Beginning

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. Twenty two acres (our present main show grounds) 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 in1961, the Browning crane in 1962. At the suggestion of Bruce Achor, a couple of members in 1964, purchased a steam locomotive from Elliott Donnelley of Lake Forest, IL. who took an interest in the accomplishments at Hesston. With his generous financial assistance, during 1965-1968, the remainder of our 155 acre site was purchased, and a unique dual gauge (24"/36") railroad was constructed. The La Porte County Historical Steam Society, Inc. 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.

The Railroad

Weekend (Memorial Day to Labor Day) operation of the railroad began in 1969. Additional buildings were erected  and more equipment arrived for restoration and exhibit each year. The SHAY locomotive restoration was completed and dedicated August 30, 1975. Unfortunately, Mr. Donnelley passed away in late December 1975. His family donated the 14" gauge railroad that had operated on his Lake Forest estate, and it was removed by society members during 1976 and moved to the steam grounds. Construction on the new site started in 1977. Completion in July 1982 was marked with a Golden Spike ceremony.

A Tragic Fire

A $2.5 million fire on May 26, 1985 destroyed most of the large railroad equipment. Nine cars, the Henschel, and a diesel locomotive, along with many tools and small parts were lost. Also badly damaged were the Shay, Porter and India locomotives.  Members purchased two Plymouth gasoline locomotives, and with a MELODIA coach purchased with a grant from the La Porte County Tourism and Convention Bureau, railroad operation (but not steam) resumed in time for the 1985 show. In early 1986, permission was received from the insurance company to begin salvage operations.

The India locomotive was bulldozed out of the engine house rubble on March 13, 1986, and taken to the main shop for restoration. Just 89 days later it was back on the rails, and under steam. The next day, construction started on two 24" gauge passenger cars.   Dr. George Mohun, of Novato California contacted us, offering 4 locomotives and 8 flat cars, the remains of the Mecklenburg Pommersche Schmall Spurbahn Railroad in East Germany, intended for a steam tourist railway near San Francisco. This railroad was never constructed, and the equipment was stored on his ranch for 17 years.  After an inspection trip, funds were borrowed and the equipment was purchased.

The equipment arrived on April 14, 1987. The brand-new, yet 47 years old,  CSK was immediately placed in the shop for cleaning and inspection. It was fired up for the first time ever in August 1987, and now serves as our regular locomotive for weekend operation.   The India locomotive was retired in 1988, after a crack developed in the copper firebox, not quite making it to 100 years of operation. In 1990 the Orenstein & Koppel 0-8-0 was moved to the shop for  a heavy restoration.  In 1997 it was temporarily de-superheated, and in 1998 was  reflued by the Hesston shop crew. Also in 1998, work started on construction of an enclosed passenger coach for the 24" line. In November, 1998 two 36" gauge passenger coaches were purchased and transported from Cedar Point at Sandusky, OH.


Elliott Donnelley (1903-1975)

The La Porte County Historical Steam Society is a group of people dedicated to restoring and preserving live steam equipment which played such an important part in the history of American life. While all have a common devotion and intenseness of purpose, backgrounds, business or profession, and education vary widely. Each member is an important cog, but one member the late ELLIOTT DONNELLEY must be singled out as a strong spoke in our Society's wheel of development.

While the printing industry was his life's concern (except for a period of several years when he had a model train parts business which ended during World War II because of the scarcity of materials) he gave of himself, his time, and his resources to many other endeavors and thereby touched the lives of countless in his lifetime, although he knew few of the people personally. He served tirelessly on board of hospitals, schools and colleges, museums, zoological societies, centers for underprivileged children and adults, homes for the elderly and of nature conservation groups; and he did it all with  a warm understanding of the needs of others, with no thought of praise for himself and with a keen sense of humor as a bonus. Yet, through his life ran a deep interest in in steam equipment, particularly railroads; he became known through the United states and in other parts of the world as a recognized authority on steam trains of all sizes. He once said that his interest in trains began as a young boy when he received from an Uncle at Christmas a small toy train filled with candy. From this developed a hobby, later extended to many places and to affect many people, not the least of which was the La Porte County Historical Steam Society.

Until his death in December 1975, he served as chairman of the Board of the Society from 1968 (when the Society was reorganized and reincorporated upon absorbing the predecessor group La Porte County Threshermen  which was incorporated in 1957). During these years- and for several years previously - when he was president of the organization - his generosity to the Society knew few bounds. Additional land and buildings were purchased; buildings erected; the present length of dual gauge track was established, and locomotives and equipment were given to the Society by him, with the knowledge that they would be faithfully maintained by members of the Society.  Even after his death the Society continued to benefit by the establishment of a Memorial Trust Fund provided for the Society by his will, and by the donation from his wife Ann (with the blessings of their four sons) of his 14" gauge trains which had run at his home in Lake Forest, IL., often for the benefit of charitable and civic organizations.

Read more about Elliott Donnelley.

 

 

 

 

 


Benefactor Elliott Donnelley with Hesston Founder John P. Edris in front of steam locomotive Porter #2


John P. Edris (1924-2005)


John Edris enjoying his favorite place 8.11.2003

Founder of the Society, purchased the original 22 acres to have a place to operate his steam traction engine.  Born  March 13 1924 in Benton Co, IN. Grew up in Michigan City, trailing his father Louis A. Edris through the NIPSCO powerhouse facilities, thus beginning a lifelong association with steam.  Served in US Merchant marine in early WW II, then joined the  US Navy, and served aboard the cruiser USS BOISE CL-11.  After the war, worked on SS North America, cruising the Great Lakes in the engine room of this classic steam passenger vessel.  Served for several years as assistant chief engineer at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, also worked for a time in the powerhouse at the Pullman Works in Michigan City. Served as manager of the Long Beach Water Works for 10 years. Appointed by Elliot Donnelley in 1968  as  General Manager of the society, a post he held until his death in 2006.




John P. Edris and the engine that started it all. 1952