If you’ve got good memories of riding the Kansas City Zoo train that ran in Swope Park from 1953 to 1972, the volunteers of the Kansas City Northern Railroad have a treat for you.
By BETH LIPOFF
Special to The Star
The restored zoo train is celebrating its 20th anniversary at its current home in Frank Vaydik Park at Northwest 60th Street and Northwest Waukomis Drive. On Saturday, railroad aficionados old and young celebrated National Train Day by riding the restored zoo train. The group also has two other restored trains that rotate in and out of service on a half-mile track, from zoos in Pittsburgh and Binghamton, N.Y.
They’ve painted each train in the colors of different railroads: Kansas City Southern, Missouri Pacific Eagle and Union Pacific.
“We come here all the time,” said Angela Cook of Kansas City, who attended the celebration with her 6-year-old son, Alex. “He loves trains, and he was very excited to come here. We’ve been talking about it all week.”
The festivities also included a train-shaped inflatable play area, face-painting and free admission to the model train exhibit that’s permanently on site. Although train rides usually cost 50 cents, all rides that day were on the house. The first 1,000 attendees also received paper hats from Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant.
The 16-inch gauge train can hold about 44 people for its open-air trek around the track, with a crew of two volunteers — an engineer and a conductor. Two of the trains have cars named in memory of former members of the Kansas City Northern Railroad, George Craig, the organization’s first president, and Neal Burge, who was a beloved conductor on the train.
“For a lot of these kids, it’s the first time they’re riding a train,” said volunteer Brint Jefferis. “Kansas City was once one of the major rail centers.”
Heidi Downer, director of marketing for Kansas City Parks and Recreation, said the train receives about 45,000 visitors each year. In addition to National Train Day, the railroad is also celebrating its 20th year in operation.
After ending its run in Swope Park in 1972, the zoo train sat in storage until 1984. A group of about 40 men and women got together to try to restore and re-establish it somewhere else in Kansas City, but it took nine years before the train was restored and the group found a site for it.
“The train was stored in the lower level of the old Kansas City police horse stables with nothing but a dirt floor and was in terrible condition when we looked at it,” said Lenny Ohrnell, president of the Kansas City Northern Railroad.
The railroad group, which is a non-profit organization, was able to work on the train with tools from Kansas City Parks and Recreation in donated warehouse space. They looked around for somewhere they could set up and nearly established the railroad in Kansas City’s Penguin Park, but protests from nearby residents forced them to find their current site in Frank Vaydik Park.
Ohrnell started in the railroad business as a telegraph operator for Burlington Northern Railroad (now BNSF Railway), and he continues to channel his love of trains into his work with the miniature railroad.
He and others in the group have gotten businesses to donate some of the items on the railroad complex. Other pieces they’ve scavenged from trash. When they did the latter to score crossing signals, the Kansas City Terminals Signal Department installed them for the group.
Another point of pride is a 1927 semaphore signal from the Santa Fe Railway, which Ohrnell said is one of only 20 such signals still functioning in the United States.
The railroad also has a bell that used to sit on the front of a 900 class steam locomotive, donated by Kansas City Southern Railway.
“I tell people our flag pole came from McDonald’s,” Ohrnell said.