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End of the Line

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After 26 years, engineer of small private railroad halts operations


CHELSEA -- The Lake Shore and Lyndon Central Railroad has made its final run.

Engineer Donald A. Drew, who has offered passenger service on Sunday afternoons around the three-quarter-mile track of his private railroad since 1966, has closed down. With regrets.

Over the last 26 years, more than 140,000 train-loving youngsters of all ages have traveled in open passenger cars behind LS&LC steam locomotive, with Drew at the throttle. Most of the track system is glimpsed by anyone who drives by his Lyndon Township farm on North Territorial Road, north of Chelsea. The rails, 15 inches apart, follow a scenic route through his property and around a pond.

Unlike most owners of small outdoor trains, Drew invited everyone to share his hobby. The LS&LC was open to the public on warm Sundays from the time he finish spiking down the track until he put out a new sign this spring. That sign relayed the unfortunate news:

"After 26 years the engineer's fire went out. No steam. Sorry."

"I hated to quit. It wasn't easy," says Drew. "I'm 84 years old. I'm not physically able to handle it any more. And you have a heck of time now finding coal that's worth a darn. I have to go over to Zeeland to get it. I use Pocahontas nut coal, about a ton every summer. It's $165 a ton. It was $7 or $8 in 1966.

Profit wasn't the motive for running the LS&LC. Ticket prices never rose beyond $1. Entertainment wasn't all that his trains provided, adds Drew. He feels they carried educational benefits.

"You'd be surprised that guys 35 and 40 would come in here, and wouldn't know what a steam engine is. It was in their generation that railroads made the change from steam to diesel."

Other privately owned outdoor small trains -- including at least a couple in Washtenaw County -- are operating and sometimes carrying passengers. Very few are open to the public. Financial risks are too great for hobbyists, says James J. Gould, who operates a train of his own.

"American society is so litigious there's no chance of starting a public train. The liability insurance is so expensive. Don was lucky. He got started when insurance was available reasonably. He never had any accidents. A lady once said she had a hole burned in a new blouse."

Vandalism struck the LS&LC only once, delaying its first trip. In August 1966, three teen-age boys trespassed on Drew's property, tipped the locomotive on its side, stole the bell and whistle, and pushed the coal tender into a pond.

Gould chose a rural site not visible from any road for the small railroad he is expanding this summer. Passengers are restricted to invited guests. "There are better than 500 individuals active in this hobby in southeastern Michigan," Gould says.

There's another important difference between Drew's LS&LC and most other private outdoor small railroad systems. The 15-inch gauge of Drew's tracks is twice the width generally chosen by those who pursue this hobby.

But Drew says, "that's too dainty for me" and "not as fast."

Gould says that "anything bigger than 7 1/2-inch gauge is too big to be portable. We take these on trucks and vans to meets all over the country.

Drew's choice of a larger gauge might have something to do with the fact that he had worked for a railroad -- the old Michigan Central Railroad (now Conrail). He started there in the late 1920's, got laid off during eh Depression, and was briefly recalled during World War II. Mostly, he worked as a boiler operator at Ypsilanti Regional Psychiatric Hospital until retiring 20 years ago.

Drews says that when he was getting started, "I laid out the right of way by driving a pickup truck around the property where I thought it could go. Where it pushed the grass down, that's where I put the track. Building it was at least as much fun as running it."

Drew says he isn't quite sure what to do now that he stopped running his own railroad.

Gould says Drew's three passenger cars, caboose and three locomotives probably are worth somewhere between $25,000 and $100,000.