The NH&LE Narrow Gauge Railroad

The day my son and I rode the New Haven & Lake Erie Narrow Gauge Railroad, it was hot and muggy. I half hoped that my son would have forgotten my promise of a train ride so that I could sit at home in the conditioned air, but a three-year old boy never forgets a promise about trains. Remembering to put the Play-Doh back in the container is another matter. We drove about two miles east of New Haven on Dawkins Road (old SR 14, for those who remember when) and turned north onto Ryan Road. One short country-block later, we were at the New Haven & Lake Erie Narrow Gauge Railroad.

The small narrow gauge railroads, which are about a third of the size of a standard gauge railroad, were ideal for short distances because of their low maintenance and start-up costs. They never really caught on here in America but were in heavy use in Europe where Ed Byer, owner and operator of the NH&LE Railroad, first encountered them. "There was just something about those charming, little trains that stayed with me long after I returned to the states," remembers Byer. Years later, the Byer family decided to build such a railroad in Indiana. Due to the scarcity of these trains in America, the Byer family had to search abroad for the equipment he needed. The steam engine, named "Arnold", was found in Germany. The diesel locomotive, "Christopher", dump cars and track were a surprise finding from Allentown, Pennsylvania. The acquisition of the double bogey flatcars was a result of a search in Poland. The train depot, a structure built in 1879 and on the National Register of Historic Places, was salvaged from Craigville, Indiana and moved 40 miles to its current location. Once all the parts were brought together and a suitable site was found, Ed and his wife Phyllis, along with sons Jonathon and Greg and a host of others, spent the next fifteen years restoring the equipment and building the mile oval railway. Placing a hand on the well-maintained covered coach, Byer recalls, "I spent a good couple of years building these coaches on top of the flatcars that we got from Poland." The years were not wasted. The workmanship of the coaches shows that Byer is as skilled in woodworking as he is in running a railroad. The seats, though not padded, are spacious and comfortable, and the entire coach appears to be done in oak. Metal advertising signs from the pre-depression era adorn the upper walls. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As Joshua and I got out of the car that day, I had to physically restrain him from running to the train. "Arnold" was running that afternoon, occasionally releasing large plumes of steam into the air. The steam engine sat picturesquely in front of the Craigville depot on a wooded lot. Before we bought our tickets, we took the time to explore a full-sized passenger car that was off a path to the left of the station. Unlike the rest of the NH&LE Railroad, this car was definitely showing its age so I'm not sure if the Byers intend for the public to climb aboard. But we did and my son enjoyed looking at the enormous train car with wheels that were almost as big as he. After this mini-adventure, we trekked back to the depot for which only the word "quaint" seems to fit. Inside was a very small gift shop and Phyllis Byer who sat in the office area, selling tickets. Because of the season, she had a can of mosquito spray that patrons were welcome to use. Of course, we took full advantage of this amenity and went out to the front porch to wait for our turn. Mr. Byer, in full railroad attire, took our tickets. "Be sure and come back in October," he said in Joshua's direction. "We open our pumpkin patch then and you can ride the train to the pumpkin patch and pick one out for Halloween." This starts the weekend of October 3 and there is a small charge for the pumpkins. Soon the train arrived and we climbed aboard. A wooden canopy covered the first car while he back car is open. We were lucky enough to get the front seats in the front car, right behind the engine. Ed's son Greg was operating the engine that day, giving the steam-driven horn a good toot or two before starting off. The ride itself is a mile and a half, twice around the oval track that runs through the woods. My son was in heaven the entire trip, looking out at the woods, down at the track, and up at the engine before us. I don't think I've ever seen him so quiet for so long (at least when a TV wasn't around). When the train finally pulled next to the station, the platform was again filled with families waiting for their turn to ride the NH&LE Railroad. Ed Byer was there too, smiling. "It's a great way to spend my retirement," he said with a wink. It's also a great way to spend an afternoon.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, September 1998.