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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Greenfield Village Perimeter Railroad: from concept to reality

May 9, 2013 Archive Insight

In 1971 Henry Ford Museum Administration Management began to implement a new master plan program for significant improvements to support the Museum and Village's upcoming celebration of the United State's Bicentennial. Greenfield Village improvements included construction of a new area called Riverfront Street (later known as Suwanee Park), new or improved visitor amenities, and a railroad that would circle the perimeter of Greenfield Village.

The Perimeter Railroad element of the project included the requirement for two operational locomotives, three new passenger cars, building a train maintenance facility (train shed), and the construction of 2.5 miles of track.

One of the major influences in deciding to develop a Perimeter Railroad was a 1968 presentation given by Edison Institute employee Tom Urban. Urban independently developed a plan and went as far as hiring an airplane with his own money to take aerial pictures of the Village. The photographer for this venture was a young man by the name of Rudy Ruzicska - our current photographer. These pictures were used by Urban in a presentation to Finance Director Lyle Hughes to demonstrate the feasibility for the routing of the railroad. Hughes was so impressed he set up a meeting with other members of senior staff to present the proposal.

Hughes’ proposal was well received and a study was started to see how to make the plan a reality. Leslie Henry (Curator of Transportation) began a study that included a number of options. Some of those options were: purchasing and moving a complete functioning railroad (with four miles of track), leasing the locomotives and cars or obtaining our own locomotives and building a railroad from scratch.

One of Henry’s inquiries during his study was to contact the Northern Peninsula mining company about an 1873 Mason-Fairlie locomotive. The Calumet & Hecla Mining Company was in the process of celebrating their 100th anniversary and had the 1873 locomotive on display in Calumet, Mich. After the celebration ended C&H agreed to donate the locomotive to The Edison Institute where it would be restored and maintained in running condition.

The restoration of the Torch Lake was to be completed in 1971 for exclusive use in an interim ride known as the One-Way Railroad. For the following year it would become the secondary locomotive for the next phase of the plan, the Perimeter Railroad.

For the primary locomotive it was decided to take the Mason #1 locomotive out of the museum and make it operational.

The Mason #1 was originally a wood-burning 0-4-0 locomotive built by the Manchester Locomotive Works in Manchester, N.H., in the 1870s. Ford purchased the locomotive and tender from the Edison Cement Corporation in 1932.

After the purchase, Ford had the locomotive sent to the Ford Rouge Shops were it was rebuilt and significantly modified to its current 4-4-0 configuration. Additionally, the boiler was enlarged and the sand dome was moved forward. The tender was rebuilt and appears to be in its original configuration.

After the restoration/modification of the locomotive and tender was completed, it was moved into Henry Ford Museum and put on display with the number plate and designation of “Mason #1.”

The Edison Institute did not have the facilities to complete the work necessary to make Mason #1 functional, so bids were requested. Keystone Products of Pittsburgh, Penn., was selected to repair the Mason #1 (Edison) locomotive and tender as well as construct three passenger cars that would be built on used chassis that Keystone would purchase.

The Mason #1 (Edison) and tender were transported by trailer to the Keystone plant in December of 1971. The contract called for replacement of the boiler, rebuilding of the compressor, governor gauge, locomotive/train valves and brakes on the tender. The Edison at that time was oil fired and the fire pan, burner, damper, fire clay lining and oil tank were to be rebuilt. The schedule for the Mason #1 restoration was that all work would be completed and the locomotive and tender would be operational by March 31, 1972.

The construction of the three-passenger cars was a less-than-straight forward process with many design options being discussed throughout the construction. Two of the cars were to be built from existing chassis and a third was going to be built on a soon-to-be purchased obsolete caboose. These cars were to be added to the three already built by Crown Metals for the 1971 One-Way Railroad.

In October of 1971 the landscaping architectural firm of Ecbo, Dean Austin & Williams (EDAW) was given approval to begin developing landscaping plans for the new track. EDAW, located in Los Angeles, Calif., was a highly respected firm with national recognition for their cultural landscaping efforts with universities and national parks.

The architectural firm of Nordstrom-Sampson & Associates from Dearborn was contracted for development of the track layout and grading. Additionally, an engineer from the DT&I railroad was acting as a consultant to N-S&A. Thomas P. McEvilly of N-S&A was chosen as the field superintendent for the project.

The Edison Institute retained Herb Rosenthal and Associates, Inc., as the designers for the new Perimeter Railroad. This project included the track system, a covered platform near Main Street (now Firestone Station), a covered platform at the Riverfront Street area (this platform is now a part of the Henry Ford Academy campus) and a platform at the east end of the Village area. The later platform was removed from the contract just as overall construction was to begin.

The Walter L. Couse Company of Detroit was awarded the contract to build the roadbed and lay the track. In all 12 companies were involved in the project’s construction.

The master plan called for the railroad to be fully functional no later than July 4, 1972. It is unclear if the original intent was to have the new platforms completed by this date, but their actual construction would not be completed until the 1974 season.

Work progressed on the tracks and the roadbed throughout the spring and early summer. Existing water lines, sewers, and gas lines had to be moved as well as filling in some soft clay areas with compacted sand backfill. Several weeks of exceptionally wet weather served to slow progress and put the scheduled July 4 completion date in jeopardy.

In late June track and roadbed construction had progressed to the point where a trial run from Smiths Creek over to the Main Street area was conducted. This run served to identify a number of issues with the curves, rails and switches and the contractors were instructed to make immediate corrections. It was also determined that the public opening of the railroad would need to be postponed to Aug. 23, 1972.

By early August work had progressed to the point where a test trip of the complete 2.5 miles could be conducted. On Aug. 9 the Torch Lake was fired up, cars were attached and a small crew of employees and management rode around the complete perimeter of the Village. (Although the original plan called for the Mason #1 to be the primary locomotive, for some reason the Torch Lake was given that role for the inaugural run even though Mason #1 was on the grounds.) There were a number of issues with the rails, ties and ballast, but not enough to postpone the rescheduled public opening.

Chairman William Clay Ford and President Dr. Donald Shelly drive the last spike on Aug. 22, 1972. (PB63405.5)

The inaugural trip for the Perimeter Railroad was on Tuesday, Aug. 22, when the three cars were loaded with specially invited guests at Smiths Creek Station. The Torch Lake then pulled the consist up to the Main Street crossing were it waited while then-Edison Institute President Dr. Donald Shelley and Board Chairman William Clay Ford drove in the final spikes (painted gold) with chrome plated spike mauls.

The Perimeter Railroad began regular service the following day offering 18 trips around Greenfield Village with each trip lasting about 20 minutes. This schedule provided for a capacity of 3,500 riders per day. For at least the first year of operation, Smiths Creek would be the only stop.

The Torch Lake with three cars loaded with visitors on its inaugural run of the Perimeter Railroad of Greenfield Village. (P.B.62316)

Engineers Frank Petroski (formerly New York Central) and Ivan D. Mead (formerly Grand Trunk Western), who were engineers for the One-Way Railroad, were back to alternate duties on the Perimeter Railroad.

The total number of riders for that first year was 154,761, which were 66,516 more rides than the One-Way railroad had the previous year.

Don LaCombe is Supervisor of Transportation & Crafts Programs at The Henry Ford.

railroads, trains

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