Financing railroad preservation from within

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, April 12, 2019

The John H. Emery Rail Heritage Trust has emerged as a major benefactor for rail-preservation groups. Among its recent gifts is $30,000 to equip Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 765, pictured on a 2015 Fort Wayne–Lafayette, Ind., excursion on Norfolk Southern, with Positive Train Control equipment. Robert S. McGonigal
Another Emery Trust gift recipient is the Illinois Railway Museum, which got $30,000 to replace aging catenary poles on its line. In March 2015, an IRM crew uses North Shore line car 604 to make repairs to the overhead. Lou Gerard
There’s never enough money for railroad museums and excursion locomotives. Running a railroad is expensive enough as it is, and that reality is doubly true for non-profit organizations trying to keep alive the practices and traditions of classic-era railroading. I’m sure the leaders of most of these organizations lose sleep at night wondering how they’ll keep the dollars coming in.

I perceive a fortunate trend happening out there, though: the growth of preservation philanthropy coming from within our own community.

Railroad preservation has always depended to some extent on financial support from “lay” sources, including federal and state government grants as well as support from major foundations. That will never end. Those are usually the best places to find large amounts of money. 

But we also see significant gifts coming from within the rail community. Underscoring this was the recent blockbuster announcement that the John H. Emery Rail Heritage Trust in 2019 will make a total of $500,000 in grants to a number of organizations. This is double what the foundation gave in 2018.

The trust was established by John Emery, who died in 2012 at age 75. A native of the Chicago area, Emery went to the University of Michigan and returned to the Windy City for a successful career in business and investing. He had a special love for passenger trains. In setting up the trust he stipulated that funds be awarded to groups preserving “the golden age of U.S. rail passenger service.”

The trust is managed by a three-person advisory committee that includes Jim Fetchero, an active passenger-train and steam fan who has operated a variety of private cars and charter trains over the years. He also worked in the railroad industry for 18 years.

“It is really great to be able to help with the many wonderful projects as we award grants to different groups all around the country,” Fetchero says. “I am proud of the work we have done and am highly honored to be a part of it. We are all indebted to John Emery for his generosity in creating the trust and all the good that it is doing.”

The Emery Trust is giving money to 29 different groups this year, too many to list in this space. But the recipients cut across a wide swath of rail preservation, ranging from mainline steam locomotives to passenger cars to structures to infrastructure. One of the groups, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society (FWRHS), is receiving $30,000 to help toward equipping Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765 with the gear necessary for operating in Positive Train Control (PTC) territory. The gift is deeply appreciated by the 765 crew.

“The Emery Trust clearly understands the critical need for mainline steam to be compatible with host railroads and we, along with the other groups who have also receive funding, are fortunate that this need is broadly understood and appreciated,” says Kelly Lynch, FWRH vice president. “And $30,000 is a lot of money to any mainline steam operator, given the sheer scope and costs associated with operating steam.”

The Emery gifts don’t go just to highly visible projects such as locomotives, passenger cars, and depots. There’s also a place for fundamental infrastructure. For instance, the Illinois Railway Museum is receiving $30,000 for the repair and reinforcement of catenary poles along the IRM main line, some of which are more than 40 years old. 

“Our project isn’t glamorous, but it’s definitely in keeping with the purposes of the Emery Trust,” says IRM General Manager Nick Kallas. “This is important work that will allow us to keep our passenger trains running.”

The venerable National Railroad Historical Society sponsors an ambitious grant program as well. The Pacific Railroad Preservation Society of Portland, Ore., operators of Spokane, Portland & Seattle No. 700, recently received $8,000 from the NRHS's annual Heritage Grants Program. The 4-8-4 is seen eastbound on Bozeman Hill during a 16-day Portland–Billings, Mont., outing in 2002. Kyle Brehm
Also in recent news, the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS) announced the awarding of $48,000 to nine recipients as part of its annual Heritage Grants Program. The NRHS program goes back several years, funded by a provision in its membership renewal process that directs donations to a separate fund for preservation. The annual awards don’t come out of dues. 

Among the lucky organizations getting a boost from the NRHS are the Pacific Railroad Preservation Society in Portland, Ore., an $8,000 grant toward the work necessary for the 15-year boiler inspection of Spokane, Portland & Seattle 4-8-4 No. 700, and $8,000 to the Roanoke Chapter, NRHS, for repairs to windows on ex-Norfolk & Western “Jim Crow” coach 512, built in 1949 for the original streamlined Powhatan Arrow

There are other noteworthy private trusts out there. One is the Candelaria Fund, run by Richard and Caroline Tower. Over the past 20 years the Towers’ fund has awarded slightly more than $2 million to rail preservation projects. Recipients have included Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, Western Railway Museum, and the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society, working on Santa Fe 4-8-4 No. 2926 in Albuquerque.

“We are a family foundation with no paid staff, so Caroline and I decide on the grants,” says Tower. “Sometimes we are approached by organizations seeking grants, at other times we reach out to groups we think are worthy.”

My colleague Jim Wrinn at Trains would rap me on the knuckles if I didn’t mention another source of funds, the annual Trains Preservation Award, which is headed up by my editor, Rob McGonigal of Classic Trains. We instituted the Trains award in 1999 — an annual gift of $10,000 to a single recipient — as a way of giving back to the rail preservation community. I’m proud of the fact that over the years the magazine has awarded a total of $200,000.

Whatever route you choose, I encourage readers to give some thought to giving back to the rail preservation community, whether through membership organizations or direct donations. Legacy gifts are also a practical alternative for a lot of people, deliverable through a will, trust, insurance policy, and the like. Every amount helps, whatever its size. I think it’s especially meaningful when money comes from those of us who proclaim a love of railroading. 

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