Red lights flicker side-by-side as two gates lower from the air in sync to block vehicles from passing.
There’s a rumbling in the distance. The head of the train approaches the railroad, and its horn sounds off in a steady pattern. Suddenly, the train and its cars arrive at the intersection and move at a high speed.
As cars wait on both ends of the road, the train passes — it might take five minutes, it could take 30.
Since the first railroad in North America was chartered in 1827, trains have carried cargo and people from one place to another. However, trains don’t strictly serve as a means of transportation or an annoyance for commuters.
Trains and railroads connect communities, which is what Big Four Rail Park and its staff hope to do in Muncie.
Last fall, Big Four Rail Park Secretary Braedyn Kelley and President Charlize Jamieson drove to Fostoria, Ohio, to visit a rail park. At first, Jamieson was reluctant of the rail park concept, but after her two-hour visit to Fostoria, she said her skepticism and perspective changed after striking conversation.
“Are you local?” Jamieson asked a fellow visitor.
“No, I’m from State College, Pennsylvania,” the man said.
“Well, you got family here or are you here for business?” Jamieson said.
“No, I’m here to watch trains,” the man said.
After her exchange with the man, Jamieson saw two other men. One told Jamieson he was from New Jersey and drove down to Fostoria to watch trains while the other told Jamieson he was from Michigan.
“In that little group of people, we had four states represented, sitting there watching trains,” Jamieson said. “It's not just train-watching, it's economics because those people stay there. Fostoria has one motel — they stay in the motel. They have a few restaurants — they eat it at those restaurants. A couple of guys brought their wives, and they shopped in Fostoria stores. Now, I'm beginning to think of this from a business perspective and an economics perspective.”
While in Fostoria, Jamieson and Kelley didn’t just meet travelers but also members of the local community, including a grandmother and her 8-year-old grandson who described it as “his favorite place to go.”
Big Four Rail Park formed in July 2021 to create the first railfan viewing area in Muncie, one of the few Midwestern cities to have three active rail lines intersect in a single location: the CSX Indianapolis Line, the Norfolk Southern New Castle Line and the NS Frankfort District.
Jamieson said she is relatively new to railfans and rail parks, but she has a background in project management and has several contacts in the community. She hopes to bring organizational structure and analysis to the Big Four Rail Park but has been fascinated with the loyalty and commitment of the rail community.
“There are people that spend hours online looking at live streaming webcams of trains,” Jamieson said. “I found that difficult for me to wrap my head around. Then, we had the experience at Fostoria, and I can tell you that [the] three-hour ride home was entirely different because I saw the vision. I saw the potential.”
The board of directors meets once a month, but Jamieson said there is communication every day. Although the park hasn’t opened yet, Jamieson and Kelley have conducted four meetings with key stakeholders to discuss the dream and goals of the Big Four Rail Park, including the location, which they can’t publicize until they receive a signed lease agreement from the property owner.
As secretary, Kelley performs organizational development for Big Four Rail Park by writing grants and helping the project develop its brand. Kelley said November 2021 was a crucial point in the process because the IRS accepted its application to pursue 501(c)(3) charitable status.
“That enables us to be able to accept grants from foundations and different agencies,” Kelley said. “That was key — that was a real turning point.”
Throughout the meeting process, Jamieson said she’s received positive reception and excitement from listeners about what this project could do for Muncie.
“Every single person we've presented to has come away excited,” Jamieson said. “The hotel is excited because every one of them sees how Muncie and their particular entity is going to benefit. These people aren't necessarily railfans themselves, but they are excited about the possibilities for Muncie.”
Kelley echoed Jamieson’s message and said they’ve met with Muncie Mayor Dan Ridenour, the owner of the Courtyard Marriott downtown and the Arc of Indiana to pitch ideas and share content. Kelley said Ridenour had a favorable response toward the rail park.
“He was genuinely excited because our project coincides with a lot of his administration's priorities — the development of park space and enhancement of gateways into the community,” Kelley said. “We have a lot of goals in common between his administration and the rail park.”
Although Jamieson and Kelley said the building process is several years away, Big Four Rail Park is already raising money to help finance its plan. They are raising money for attorney fees, basic expenses, website development and insurance. The proceeds are also needed to benefit from matching grant programs available for nonprofit organizations.
One of the vital components of the current process is spreading the word and expanding the group. Big Four Rail Park lists its annual membership at $40 for adults and $25 for students and senior citizens.
Jamieson understands there is much to do before any construction begins and realizes it will be a multi-year effort. However, she has a clear vision in mind.
“It's not just rails, it's not just rail parts, it's the vehicle that drives people into Muncie,” Jamieson said. “Muncie has the opportunity to be the best rail park in the country, and that's our goal we want to make. We want to be the best rail park in the United States.”
When constructed, Big Four Rail Park and its members will have successfully brought a new and unique attraction to Muncie the community has not seen before.
Contact Charleston Bowles with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @cbowles01.