About twenty minutes from Cleveland in Kirtland in Lake County is the Penitentiary Glen Nature Park. Originally called Halle Farm, it was the summer home of Sam Halle of the Halle Brothers Department Store who purchased the place in 1912. Since 1976 the 424 acre property has been owned by the Lake Metroparks. I have driven past this place over the years and it always seemed busy. This year, I discovered one fo the reasons why; something very unique.
Just a few yards away from the nature center on the edge of the woods is a train station which serves as the depot for the Lake Shore Live Steamers; whose miniature trains ride the rails through the trees. These are not toy trains however, but more like the one that Walt Disney rode on in his home movies. Volunteers, such as fellow North Shore Collinwood resident (and former radio guy) Dennis Crislip, operate the locomotives and people can ride on top of the freight and passenger cars they pull. Twelve times a year, the public is allowed to join in the fun.
Established in 1969, Lake Shore Rails came to Penitentiary Glen in 1983 when the back orchard track was laid out. Since then, more routes have been added and there are 30 trains in total operated by the members. All of them are privately owned, built from kits and on a few occasions completely from scratch. They are powered by gas operated engines with hydroelectric pumps. The train cars have an incredible amount of detail to them. In the case of the Boston Main Locomotive that really caught my attention, the story behind the Pullman cars it pulled is worth noting. The man who built it wrote the Pullman Company to see if he could obtain a swatch of their paint color so he can match the paint as authentic as possible. The company must have been quite impressed with him since they wound up sending him cans of paint in the original color.
According the President Ken Brooks, there are clubs like this all over the county. In fact there is one large one in Arizona that attracts a national following. However, they don’t run until January because of the heat.
Naturally, the Lake Metroparks take the opportunity to use these free ride events as a way of promoting their own events. The second time I went, September 10th, was Bug Day and the Nature Center was almost as busy as the railroad with families exploring the rooms and looking at the displays. As it turned out, what I thought was the Halle residence is in fact the stables with an addition built when it became a nature center; doubling its size. The horses were sure living in style back in the day! There are a few other buildings associated with the farm to the north, including one where the railroad enthusiasts store their trains.
The Lake Shore Steamers will be having their free Sunday rides from 1:00-3:00 PM off and on throughout the rest of the year, including today, October 9th, and December 2nd. Dennis mentioned that they are always looking for volunteers which can mean those lucky individuals can hop on the rails twenty-eight other times of the year. This is really one of the hidden gems of NE Ohio.
Photographs taken by James Valentino.