Jerry Joe Jacobson, 1957, and paying it forward

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, September 14, 2017

Once in a while, someone does something insignificant at the time but that later on blooms into something magnificent. In the case of Jerry Joe Jacobson, the steam-loving shortline entrepreneur who passed away Wednesday at age 74, that moment came on the evening of June 20, 1957. A Baltimore & Ohio crew let a 13-year-old Jerry handle the throttle while their Mikado was in a siding setting off a hotbox car. Because of this Jerry got home late, he was grounded for weeks, and, much to the benefit of us all, he started a lifetime quest to possess his own steam locomotive. He ended up owning more than a dozen, from tiny 0-4-0Ts to a legendary 2-8-4 and a mighty 4-8-4, which he kept in the 18-stall Age of Steam Roundhouse near Sugarcreek, Ohio. He built the facility in 2012 to house his locomotive collection after selling his shortline holdings. It was the first major roundhouse built in the U.S. in more than 60 years.


I met Jerry on my first visit to the Ohio Central, a steam extravaganza in 1997 that featured no less than three big steam locomotives, a Ten-Wheeler, a Consolidation, and a Pacific. There were doubleheaders, side-by-side running, you name it. In the steam-starved late 1990s, the Ohio Central was a welcomed breath of coal smoke and hot pin grease. The next time I saw Jerry we were surveying three big hot locomotives again, but this we were across the country at the Grand Canyon Railway, where AT&SF 4-8-4 3751 was visiting in the company of the railroad’s Mikado and Consolidation. Jerry and restoration contractor Gary Bensman and I mulled the state of the industry during the layover. Jerry was riding high. He’d restored Grand Trunk Western 4-8-4 No. 6325 the year before. Things seemed to be going along like a fast express with no end in sight.


I was wrong about that. All good things do come to an end. Two years later, in 2004, the Ohio Central put on a steam festival aimed at a large audience. It was just before I left my home in North Carolina to go to work for Trains. There seemed to be a feeling of change in the air at that event, and sure enough, two years later, Jerry got out of the steam excursion business. He had become fearful of lawsuits.


In August 2012, Classic Trains Editor Rob McGonigal and I, fresh from a few days spent trackside in Pennsylvania with Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765, stopped by Sugarcreek to see the newly completed Age of Steam Roundhouse. We were excited. This was a Field of Dreams moment when we pulled up – Jerry had literally built something special in the middle of a cornfield. It was a steam locomotive nirvana, all the way from the big picture of what had been done right, the collection of locomotives, right down to the smallest of details — the slope in the floor for boiler washes, the period furniture and decorations for the offices. The amiable John B. Corns and Chief Mechanical Officer Tim Sposato hosted us that day. Jerry was not around.


And now he is gone.


I’d like to think that somewhere in the great beyond that B&O train crew from 1957 is smiling, seeing how their good deed was paid forward. I’d also like to think that somewhere out there in days to come, there’s a kid about 12 or 13 who will walk into the Age of Steam Roundhouse, find him or herself smitten with steam power, and keep it going for the next generation.

Read more about Jerry Joe Jacobson, his Ohio Central, and the Age of Steam Roundhouse in the August 2006 and February 2013 editions of Trains.



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