BALDWIN CITY — The Midland Railway’s Burlington coach is looking more weathered than ever, but not because it turned 100 this year.
Punched-in windows, graffiti-tagged walls and stripped electrical components are evidence that vandals have made stops at the Baldwin City attraction.
Allen Kinsley, Midland Railway Historical Association general manager, said he reported the most recent discovery in a string of vandalism — broken windows appearing in two other cars— on Jan. 8 to the local police department.
Though an insurance company covered $30,000 of the damage, Kinsley said, it might take years to get the car operational again.
“To us the value of the car is historically above and beyond what monetarily somebody thinks it’s worth,” Kinsley said. “You just don’t find this equipment anywhere in the country.”
The historical attraction, located about 15 miles from downtown Ottawa, operates vintage trains on 11 miles of railroad originally constructed in 1867, chugging from Baldwin City to Ottawa.
At Ottawa’s Old Depot Museum, 135 W. Tecumseh St., a caboose sits on display. Robert Burkhart, Franklin County Historical Society treasurer, said there have been conversations about adding a rail car, but concerns are always raised about protecting the cars.
“If you have that kind of equipment on public display, you have to worry about that,” he said.
Burkhart said he worked in the rail industry on freight trains for more than 29 years. He said until 1983, railroad police were on patrol to arrest vandals and thieves.
“Youth gangs would go out and graffiti the sides of rail cars and things like that,” he said. “It was really more of a nuisance and it really wasn’t that bad.”
Though Burkhart said he was shocked to hear about Midland Railway’s bad news, he said people today don’t think about how instrumental freight operations are to the economy, as they’ve faded into memories and museums.
Kinsley said railroad appreciation comes from both young and old visitors, including a family from Chicago. He said they told him, “I remember riding on these exact cars from the suburbs to downtown Chicago to work every day.”
The exterior of the 80-foot vandalized rail car in Baldwin City is painted Pullman green and marked “Burlington” with yellow lettering. Kinsley said it was built as a coach in 1916 and was divided into three sections decades later by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad.
Twenty four seats covered in blue vinyl make up the front part, a generator compartment provided power, and through wooden sliding doors was the Railway Post Office, he said.
“It was a very useful car,” Kinsley said. “One, it provided more seating on our trains during our events; and two, it was a project that some guys had been working on for awhile. You put hundreds of hours of labor into something... and then to have something like this happen.”
Close to 110 volunteers — some who were involved with the railroad — devote their time to the year-round operations, Kinsley said. Only a handful live in Baldwin City, the rest are in the surrounding area and even Nebraska and Oklahoma.
“A comment that was made the other day from one of our members was, ‘I get to do something that I was never able to do. I’m able to be a conductor and wear a conductor’s uniform like they did in the early days — to be able to come out here and provide an enjoyment out here.’”
News of the recent vandalism was disheartening to volunteers, he said. The non-profit association makes money from admissions, but to stay up and running last year’s expenses were $500,000 and $525,000 in 2014, Kinsley said.
“We just don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to say, ‘Oh well, tomorrow we’ll start working on that and we’ll put it back in service,’” he said. “It just don’t work that way.”
Last year, the wooded area surrounding the cars was cleared to create greater visibility, Kinsley said, noting he has known of neighbors to report suspicious behavior in the area to the police.
With help from a local company, Kinsley said they might install security cameras for around-the-clock surveillance, especially with the damage to more cars.
“They tried to get the air conditioning unit off of one car and decided they couldn’t because it’s welded in,” he said. “They went to the extent of stealing the locks off the door for the metal, so there’s no lock anymore. You can’t even lock the door.”
Of the Midland Railway’s still-operating cars, a faded green one was built in 1898 with wood and coal stoves. Another, the 1940-fashioned Kansas Belle Dinner Train’s passenger car, offers the “Sunday Excursion” train ride, the website said.
Kinsley said the police department is doing its best, but he speculates the people causing the vandalism might wear gloves, work at night and not value the pieces of equipment.
“If people have information or knowledge, if it is kids doing it, or you hear kids talking about it, tell somebody,” Kinsley said.
Amelia Arvesen is a Herald staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AmeliaArvesen.