What Jerry Joe gave us

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Jerry Joe Jacobson (left) discusses a fine point of Ohio Central 4-6-2 No. 1293 with engine crewman Scott Czigans before an excursion out of Dennison, Ohio, in 2003. Robert S. McGonigal photo
Jerry Joe Jacobson was like some kind of magical railroad elf, sprinkling fairy dust on all kinds of railroad people, especially those of the steam persuasion. That includes me.

Jerry Joe, the one-time Ohio shortline magnate and sponsor of the incredible Age of Steam Roundhouse in Sugarcreek, died last week at age 74 after a long illness.

Although his passing was not a surprise, it still stung a lot of people, and tributes have been pouring in all over social media. Steam locomotive owners and mechanics, working railroaders, preservationists, journalists — people from so many parts of our little world were touched by this whirling dervish of a man. Editor Jim Wrinn over at Trains wrote an especially touching remembrance

Jerry Joe’s influence spread to some of the far corners of railroading. Certainly he was a major figure in the short line and regional railroad industry. The story of how he parlayed the purchase of a couple of small Ohio industrial railroads into the eventual 550-mile Ohio Central Railroad System (OCRS) has become lore, and no doubt inspired others in the business. The Ohio Central and its mix of local business and Class I through traffic was one of the success stories of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Although Jerry Joe didn’t come off like a pedigreed corporate business guy, you don’t need an MBA from the Wharton School to respect what he accomplished, nor to be impressed by the brilliant move he made in 2008 when he sold OCRS to Genesee & Wyoming for more than $200 million.

Perhaps Jerry Joe had an even more profound impact on the small but fervent world of steam locomotive restoration. His extensive steam operations on Ohio Central were almost unprecedented, and helped nurture a cadre of new-generation mechanics whose gloved hands have touched Milwaukee Road 261, Nickel Plate 765, Pere Marquette 1225, Soo Line 1003, and many of the other engines we enjoy in 2017.

My own encounters with Jerry Joe were mostly as a journalist, and in that role I found the man to be as complex as he was fascinating. His passion for steam was infectious, something this supposedly objective reporter found hard to resist, but he could also be a mercurial interview subject. Much to my frustration, I often found that pages and pages of notes would often yield only a handful of useable quotes. Of course, maybe that was what this very private man had in mind.

But Jerry Joe’s most enduring effect on me wasn’t professional. It was highly personal, and that relates to his crowning achievement, the astounding Age of Steam Roundhouse, the multi-million-dollar temple to steam he completed in 2012.

Kevin Keefe (left) stands with his longtime friend John Corns outside the Age of Steam Roundhouse at Sugarcreek, Ohio.
One of my favorite little online diversions is to get on Google Earth, focus on a patch of 36 acres a couple of miles south of Sugarcreek, Ohio, and marvel at what Jacobson hath wrought. There’s no mistaking the 18-stall roundhouse, 115-foot turntable, spacious locomotive shop, water and fuel facilities, and jam-packed storage tracks, spread across the landscape like a 1922 aerial photo.

I first encountered Age of Steam about three years ago, and my emotions caught me by surprise.

First, some background. I grew up on the edge of a small town, in a neighborhood barely a mile from a similar facility, a sprawling steam terminal built in 1919, complete with its own large roundhouse, repair shops, YMCA hotel, eight-story ice house, and assorted support buildings.

As cool as it was to live near such a place, the overall effect was bittersweet since all the railroaders and locomotives that populated the place left town in 1956, the very year I moved in. I spent a considerable part of my youth hiking amid the weeds and crumbling concrete of a lost empire. I’m sure a lot of you know what that feels like.

Then, that magical day, Jerry Joe gave it all back to me. My guide was my good friend John B. Corns, former CSX photographer and longtime manager for Jacobson. When I got out of the car, I had to catch my breath. There, looming over us, was the very place I’d struggled to imagine all those years as a kid.

Jerry Joe’s roundhouse isn’t like any railroad museum. There are no carefully plotted walkways for visitors, no elegant signs, no interactive digital displays, no costumed docents. In fact, it looks, smells, and feels like you’ve slipped through a time warp to a place where the master mechanic’s reference books are strewn all over desks, where old railroad calendars decorate the halls and the locker room, where tools clutter the roundhouse stalls, where big black telephones sit waiting to make the next crew call. 

The attention to detail at Age of Steam is breathtaking, and the place quite literally had the hair standing up on the back of my neck for at least the first two hours.

For that experience, I’ll always be grateful to Jerry Joe Jacobson. I know for a fact that one of his motivations was to bring back a small piece of his own childhood, and he was blessed to have the resources to do it. In the process, he brought it back for me, too.

Thanks, Jerry Joe, my hat’s off to you. Somewhere now you’re the night hostler, puttering around under the smoke jacks, telling tall tales around a cracker barrel, keeping a 4-6-2 simmering for the morning call.


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