Original publish date: July 23, 2018
At 11:59 pm on Thursday July 12, 2018, the Indiana Transportation Museum (ITM) in Noblesville, Indiana ceased to exist when the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office swarmed the grounds at Forest Park and sealed the property. The closing, although known by all parties involved, still came as a shock to the system for the dedicated volunteers working furiously to save the engines, railcars and equipment they have so lovingly cared for over the past half-century. Even though everyone knew it was coming, no one really expected it to happen.
As an intensely interested (but uninvested) observer of what happened that week after Independence Day, I immediately recognized the politics involved on both sides. There can be no doubt there were strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Like all parties involved, I have my own opinion. However, I am neither a train-guy nor an investigative journalist. I have a background in historic preservation, particularly when it comes to my birth state of Indiana, and I write about Hoosier history. I don’t think it’s my place to take sides in this debate. What’s done is done, what’s right is right and in the words of Buffalo Springfield, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
From the moment that I walked into that chaotic scene one week before it’s closing, I was struck by the dedication of the people working on those trains. Whether talking about on-site volunteers from the ITM or those from neighboring rail museums, one thing was clear from the start, when it comes to trains, these people are passionate about preservation. The people I’m talking about don’t have PhD’s, don’t serve on boards of directors and don’t give a damn about self-promotion or the politics involved. They love trains, period. So when I heard the news of the ITM’s closing, I felt it would be best to honor these folks rather than add to the chatter of discontent.
In part one of this article, I detailed the quest that brought me to the ITM in the first place: the search for the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar. I had been tipped off to the car’s presence at ITM by Meg Purnsley, friend and dedicated Indianapolis preservationist. My first inquiries about the fate of car # 153 were met with puzzled looks on the greased streaked faces of the first few people I encountered. Finally I was directed to the trolley barn just east of the Hobbs station depot where I found Craig Presler hovering over a couple wooden trolley cars located there. As it turned out, locating Craig was my first good find of the day, but certainly not my last.
When I asked Craig about the fate of Indy streetcar 1-5-3, he answered, “Well I can take you to where it was but it was crushed some time ago.” What? I was gobsmacked by the news and immediately sick to my stomach. Thank goodness my wife Rhonda was there to prop me up else I may have fainted dead away on the spot. Craig walked us a couple hundred yards past another trolley barn and pointed to a train car parked near the tree line. “The car you’re looking for was located right behind this one,” said Craig. “But it was crushed some time ago.” I’m no Indiana Jones, but as I looked into the trees several yards past the wood line, I saw the gleam of a window. “What’s that? Is that it?” I asked Craig. Then, time slowed down like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie as Craig said, “Maybe, I guess it didn’t get crushed after all.”
In a flash, Rhonda and I found ourselves blazing a trail through the thick overgrowth towards that window. With each step, the shadowy silhouette of car 153 emerged from the wilderness. It was in pretty bad shape, but it was there. Knowing that time was not on my side, my every thought went to getting this car out of these woods before it was too late. As I said before, I am not a train guy and have no idea what it would take to get this relic out of these woods. Craig assured me that it could be done and pledged to help in any way that he could. Meantime, the hour was getting late and I needed to try and find a home for this historic streetcar. I arranged to meet Craig the next day to talk more about saving the car.
Once home, I fired up the lines of communication to anyone I thought might be able to help save this car. I updated former Indiana National Road Association Presidents Meg Purnsley and Ron Sanders on the dire situation. Both assured me that INRA might be a suitable home. I contacted Stevi Stoesz Kersh, Executive Director of Indianapolis City Market, who enlisted her help and counsel. I even contacted Dale Harkins of the Irving theater for his advice. The Facebook community chimed in with concern and caring comments. The support was there, no doubt, but we were running out of time.
The next day Rhonda & I returned to the ITM. Once again I sought out Craig Presler. As detailed in part one of ths story, Craig directed me towards Laddie Vitek of the Illinois Railway Museum and William Whitmer of the “Hoosier Heartland Trolley Co.” who met us at the car in the woods. Both agreed that the car could (and should) be saved. The only question was, how could we do it?
We spent the rest of that second day walking and talking with Craig Presler. Although my focus was on the last surviving Indy streetcar and how to save it, I could plainly see that news of the museum’s closing was devastating Craig. Turns out Craig Presler’s history with the ITM is nearly as old as the museum itself. He came to Noblesville in the early 1970s and worked at Firestone for over three decades while volunteering his time to the ITM on nights and weekends. He lives within walking distance of the museum and when he retired last year he made plans to devote the lion’s share of his time guiding visitors through the train cars at the ITM. In particular the lavish railcar known as “The Flagler Car.”
Craig Presler knows every square inch of Henry Flagler’s 1898 private railcar. The name Flagler is familiar to anyone who has spent any time visiting St. Augustine Florida but really, Flagler is second only to Walt Disney when it comes to the state of Florida’s prominence as a tourist mecca. Henry Morrison Flagler (January 2, 1830 – May 20, 1913) was a founder of Standard Oil and an early partner of John D Rockefeller in Ohio. He almost singlehandedly developed the Atlantic coast of Florida and he founded Florida’s East Coast Railway. Today, he is known as the father of Miami and Palm Beach, Florida.
“Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Holman bought this car for his wife’s birthday in 1968 and in turn we got it several years ago,” says Craig. “The wood is all Canarium which is a blonde mahogany native to the Canary Islands. Henry Flagler pretty
much owned the whole east coast of Florida and he told the builders of the car that he wanted it to look sunny like Florida. The rail line continued to operate the car until about 1951 – 52 when it was purchased by a man from Anderson named Ike Duffy who managed a meatpacking plant but who, more importantly, is remembered today as a founding father of the NBA. He started one of the inaugural franchises known as the Anderson Packers. Ike use the train to promote his business and rode it around to all his meatpacking plants in Noblesville, Lebanon, Anderson, Muncie and Brazil. He would serve his employees lunch that he actually cooked in the kitchen of this car. When Ike Duffy died in 1968, Tony Hulman bought it. I’m told that he took it to Chicago twice and that Mrs. Hulman never rode in it.”
Craig delighted showing visitors (like us) all of the secret compartments and high-end accouterments that were found all over the Flagler car. It had self-closing windows, drawers and beds all over the place. Zinc lined compartments to hold and chill champagne bottles and the finest blinds, carpeting, curtains and Persian rug styled monogrammed blankets money could buy. It was easy to see that this car was a large part of Craig Presler’s life. When I asked him what would become of the car after the museum closed, he said, “I’m told the car is being moved to our affiliate in Logansport and that I will be able to go up on the weekends and continue to give tours.”
As Rhonda and I exited the the railcar following Craig’s impromptu tour, two officials I had been talking to previously about the ITM’s closure pulled me aside and informed me that while we were touring the car, it had been sold. It was going to be moved to a museum in Monon Indiana some 90 miles away. They finished by saying, “Don’t tell Craig, he does not know yet.” Knowing how much Craig loved this car, I knew this was going to be devastating news. As we left that day we arranged to meet Craig the next morning.
We showed up on Saturday, but this time with reinforcements: Kris and Roger Branch, Tim Poynter and Steve Hunt. One way or another we were going to save this car. I noticed that Craig had a plastic bag hooked on his belt loop. It contained a spray can of adhesive and some specialty tools. Craig said he brought them to fix a small piece of woodwork in the Flagler car he had pointed out to us the day before. The damaged area was so small as to be indiscernible to anyone else but Craig. The sad part is that the sight of that bag made me realize instantly that no one had yet told Craig his beloved Flagler car had been sold. He insisted on showing the Flagler car to the new additions in our group. That was Craig’s last tour. (the Flagler car made it out at 11:45. It was the last train out before the gate were locked.)
The realization was all the more ironic because the object of my quest, the dilapidated shell of the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar was moldering away in the woods not 20 yards away from that opulent Flagler car. Before I could ponder the dichotomy of the situation any further, I received a text message from William Whitmer telling me that the streetcar had been saved. We met at the streetcar and William delivered the good news.
William explained how he had stepped up and bought the car just in the nick of time. William had arrived at the streetcar, receipt in hand, just as the wrecker was creeping slowly towards it. “I couldn’t believe it,” William said, “I literally had to stand in front of the streetcar and wave my arms to get them to stop. They had been told the streetcar was scrap and that they were there to break it up. Five more minutes and the streetcar would have been crushed. The driver didn’t want to believe me until I showed him the receipt.”
William said that after our discussion the day before, “We did a very preliminary examination on the car body. The frame and car bolster (where the truck/wheels attach) is in solid shape. The actual structural steel is not too rotted. Side bracing is acceptable, and a lot of the upright steel frame is acceptable. The car is in overall better condition than we thought originally, making restoration far more likely.”
Then he shocked me by saying, “If it hadn’t been for you Al, this car would have been lost.” I was unprepared for that statement. Although humbled, I had to admit that it was not entirely my doing. First, I was there on a story for the Weekly View. Secondly, I was acting on a tip from Meg Purnsley. So without the paper and the heads up from Meg, this story would never have happened. And most importantly, without the quick action by William Whitmer and his Hoosier Heartland Trolley Group , the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar would have been lost forever. Will informs me that it may take up to 10 years to restore the car. He insists that he will keep us updated on the progress.
The streetcar has been saved but the museum is lost forever. While I no longer worry about the fate of the engines and cars, I do worry about the people. In particular my new friend Craig Presler. What is to become of him? His baby, the Flagler car, now resides nearly two hours away. The museum that was his passion is no more. The site will undoubtedly be plowed under and a swing set, waterpark or zip line will take its place in a year or so. All of the sabre rattling by the city of Noblesville about the ITM’s chemical hazards will be forgotten and no environmental cleanup will take place. Because none was needed. Another historical treasure lost to the temporal winds of political folly.
Luckily, William Whitmer assures me that his group has a place for Craig Presler and any other displaced ITM volunteer looking for a place to land. One thing can be sure, after the dust settles in the woods of Forest Park, much soul searching will be needed in the preservation community. In my opinion, it certainly smacks of just another backdoor “eminent domain” situation in Hamilton County. What I can say for sure is that I met many hardworking volunteers during the last days and hours of the Indiana Transportation Museum in Noblesville. Their individual flames burned bright. Some were warmed by the flame. Others were burnt by it. And although the flame of the ITM has burned out, that of the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar burns on.