By Colleen Lehmann
When it comes to trains and Tuscola, there is a bit of a love-hate relationship, depending on who you ask. The rails played a major role in the city’s founding and history, and Tuscola boasts a somewhat unusual diamond crossing where three lines—CSX, CN, and UP—intersect.
That can be the source of frustration for some residents, who occasionally weary of the numerous times any given day that signal lights flash and safety arms lower to allow unimpeded passage for the clickety-clacking railcars that whiz by (or slowly creep—based on your particular sense of urgency in needing to get across!).
But for many folks, that long pull on the horn is more siren song, wooing them to the tracks to watch the mighty iron horse pass through. Those who love all things train are a devoted bunch, and so for them—and anyone else so inclined—an inaugural Tuscola Train Day event on Sat., May 10, 2014 is just the ticket.
Attend the first-time event and you will find a designated train viewing and photography area, locomotive horn exhibit, railroadiana vendors, HO model train layout, and more. The nearby Tuscola Community Building will be the site for the vendor fair, as well as light refreshments available for purchase, while the parking area adjacent to the Union Pacific right-of-way will serve as the viewing/photography area. Events kick off at 9 a.m. and will conclude by 5 p.m., rain or shine.
Tuscola resident Fred Heilich unquestionably falls into the aforementioned category of train aficionado, and he has essentially been a committee of one in bringing the nationally recognized Train Day event to town. Amtrak has sponsored a Train Day for seven years, celebrating the rich history of the rails in America and stressing the importance of safety. Heilich was in the aerospace industry by trade, but indulged his passion for trains by serving as a volunteer engineer/conductor for the West Chester Railroad—a short line railroad in Pennsylvania—since 1999. He still holds a current engineer’s certificate with the West Chester RR, and is excited to be the driving force behind Tuscola’s first-time hosting of the event.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind, since we moved to Tuscola, to have a Train Day event here, since there is such a significant history and the diamond formation. While my ‘real’ job was as an aircraft flight control engineering business manager in the aerospace industry, I come by my love of trains honestly. One of my grandfathers was a railroad locomotive engineer, and the other was a railroad section foreman,” Heilich noted.
Armed with the desire to organize Train Day, Heilich approached city officials about the proposition.
“I asked the city if there was any kind of backing it could give me, and was fortunate to receive a Tourism grant, and they waived the Community Building rental fee to help gauge interest. Once that was approved I got busy promoting the event. Rail fans and model railroaders are the target audience, but it’s certainly something anyone is welcome to attend, and would be a very family-friendly day.
“I’ve been to a number of communities to talk about the May 10 date, marketed it heavily at the Decatur and Mattoon train shows, and have used social media to get the word out, as well as including it on online railfan calendars and sites. [City employee] Anna Marx has been a big help with getting things organized and with marketing efforts,” Heilich added.
Vendors have shown an interest in coming to Tuscola, says Heilich, with one man bringing 10 tables of merchandise to the Community Building. Team Kika—a support group for Tuscola resident Erica Kremitzki who is currently fighting cancer—will be offering light refreshments for purchase. Two collectors of locomotive horns will be set up in the empty lot where F.H. Jones Lumber Company was formerly housed, and there will be parking in the Cargill lot and in the lot to the west of the Community Building. The traditional parking spaces outside of the Community Building, near the tracks, will be roped off for viewing/photography purposes.
Heilich stressed that safety will be a primary concern on Train Day, and noted “We are asking that the ROW areas of the UP/CSX/CN railroads not be used, as these are private property and would be considered trespassing.”
If anyone is so inclined, Heilich would appreciate help with setting things up on Friday around 4 p.m., and tearing down Saturday after 5 p.m. For more information, contact Heilich at 217-552-4059.