The Israelite House of David miniature trains were a fixture in Benton Harbor along Britain Avenue for sixty-five years. The high shriek of the little steam whistles as the trains passing around Eden Springs Park on a one-mile track was burned into the memories of generations of visitors and neighbors. The excitement of standing in the depot as a train rumbled in was a thrill that no kid could forget.
~ You may click the images below for a larger view. ~
In 1908 the Israelite House of David sent agents to New York to purchase a miniature locomotive, coal car and three passenger cars (1). Members had observed these Cagney engines at the St. Louis Worlds Fair in 1904 while manning a recruiting booth there. The capability of these small trains to move people around the fair on a six and one half mile track was noted by the colonists. The engine they purchased was a 4-4-0 American Standard type locomotive and the passenger cars were little more than platforms on tiny wheels with board benches. In the first partial season for the park in 1908 this little train was a popular attraction but proved to be inadequate for moving large numbers of visitors from Britain Avenue to Eden Springs Park. The little train had quickly become an important link in a transportation system important to the commercial success of the new park.
In the early days a large portion of visitors to the park traveled by boat from Chicago to Benton Harbor (2), then from the Benton Harbor docks to the Israelite House of David colony by streetcar. In the early years the streetcars line ran past Eden Park on Britain Ave. and then turned south along the eastern edge of Eden Park on Blaine Ave. The streetcar line traveled to the end of Blaine Ave. which was due east of the Archway building before looping east and then back south to Britain where it reconnected to the Britain Ave. line running back west. When the visitors debarked from the streetcars on Britain Ave. or Blaine Ave. they could immediately board a miniature train for the ride into the park. A long walk from Britain Ave. to the Archway park entrance (3) faced those who eschewed a train ride. Soon after the arrival of the first train Israelite House of David engineers had disassembled the little engine for parts and to make blueprints from which four additional 4-4-0 engines were made right on the colony grounds (4). The preparation of a place for the 144,000 elect at the end of the millennium required that the colony be self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency also made good economic sense.
The Israelite House of David's miniature locomotives were manufactured from scratch right at the colony. From the casting of the heavy metal parts (5) to the fine machining of precision parts (6) colony workmen fashioned a fleet of new engines starting in the winter of 1908-9.
First came four 4-4-0 engines including the converted Cagney engine (7). Then four larger 4-6-0 engines were built within a few years (8) . Just after World War II, the final three 2-6-2 engines were manufactured at the colony.
To insure the visitor's comfort new passenger cars were constructed for the new engines. As a prototype colony engineers turned to the early street cars that brought passengers from the boat docks for inspiration (9) and to carriages built by the local Baushke Carriage works owned by early members of the colony (10). These new cars were streamlined with comfortable contoured seats. Most were even upholstered.
While some parts from the old passenger cars may have been incorporated into the newer trains the old rough bench seats lived on as extra bench seating in the park (11).
Colony members were kept busy building the miniature rail system. A small depot was constructed on the south side of Britain Ave. (12) and later expanded to include a train shed and souvenir stands (13). A depot was also constructed at the east entrance to the park on Blaine Ave. A high trestle was constructed to allow the little trains to traverse the Eden Springs Park valley on the western side of the park. When the park first opened in 1908 the west trestle was a connecting point on the miniature railroad to other resorts south of Eden Springs. At the time of construction this west trestle was the highest and longest miniature railroad trestle in the world (14).
Another trestle was later built on the eastern end of the valley to allow the trains to loop back to the north end of Eden Springs. Construction of a depot on the southern side of the park (15) and a train shed to house the rolling stock in the southwestern portion of the park completed the major components of the trains system.
After the park opened in 1908 colonists experimented with different track layouts.
In the spring of 1908 when the first little engine arrived at the colony a 15" gauge track configuration was laid out by rail gangs of colony members (16). It appears that an early track was laid from the Archway building north crossing Britain Ave. and continuing through the arch between the Jerusalem and Bethlehem residence buildings and ended at the arch on the east side of the original ice cream parlor further north (17 & 18).
At the opening of the park in 1908 a flyer was produced which included a map of a track layout (19). Other early track configurations included a "D" shape (20) which discharged passengers at the Archway on the rim of the Eden Springs valley from were the visitors would walk through the Arch, down the side of the Eden Springs valley and into the park (21).
A figure eight layout (22) with the tracks crossing north of the valley (23) and proceeding over the trestles in a clockwise fashion (24). After years of experimentation a rectangular track layout was standardized that would last throughout the rest of the park's history (25). Trains ran between depots in a counter clockwise direction. Each depot had a siding that allowed a train to be on standby if waiting lines at a depot should suddenly lengthen.
The little trains were so successful that in the first full twelve-week season in 1909 over 70,000 tickets were sold to ride the little trains. This represented about half of the visitors to the park. Train use increased with the crowds and number of trains. Over 85,000 park visitors rode the trains in the 1913 summer season.
Because the equipment and tracks were well designed and safety was publicly promoted the little trains were involved in very few accidents. Only one accident in the entire history of the little trains resulted in the injury of a passenger. In August of 1912 one passenger car overturned on a curve due to the passengers all leaning to the outside of car and a passenger broke his leg. The passengers involved in the accident publicly absolved the park of any negligence.
During the decades between the World Wars the Israelite House of David became known nationally and Eden Park was jammed to overflowing every summer.
Movement of the huge crowds became a major undertaking.
The original four 4-4-0 engines designated locomotives #5, #6, #7 and #8 were usually used to manage the weekday crowds. These engines could pull four passenger cars each. As each car could hold eight passengers these trains, when full could carry 32 park visitors. To handle the large weekend crowds the larger, more powerful 4-6-0 engines designated locomotives #1, #2, #3 and #4 were put into service. The 4-6-0 engines could pull six cars each for a total of 48 passengers per train. On busy days six to eight trains ran the one-mile track with trains pulling into the depots on the tails of trains pulling out to support the constant stream of people. Generations of colony boys grew up working their summers as train engineers (26) while older members worked as conductors of the streetcar lines (27). The ships, streetcars and miniature trains together provided a transportation system that carried Chicago tourists from the big city to Eden Springs Park. Without this system the park probably would not have been such a commercial success.
Over the years the colony continued to experiment with new ideas for their miniature trains. Among the innovations was an enclosed passenger car for Mary and Benjamin (28) and an attempt to modernize the little engines by adding a "Hiawatha" streamlined superstructure (29).
The miniature trains were so popular the colony added other scaled down attractions including a midget auto raceway, miniature buildings and model ships which held mock navel battles in the park pond for the entertainment of park visitors. By the Second World War the little fleet of locomotives was beginning to show its age. Plans were drawn up using scaled down blueprints of a more modern 2-6-2 steam locomotive. The new engines were to be larger and more powerful than the ones they were to replace. Since the new locomotives were designed to carry more passengers only three locomotives were made to replace the nine little engines which had hauled the park tourists for thirty-five years.
The older engines were sold (30). Like the older engines the new ones were manufactured right at the colony (31). These engines were the ones that most people remember today (32).
From 1948 until 1971 these engines continued in regular service during the summer seasons until the final closing of the park. Many of these engines were still housed in the round house at the Israelite House of David (33).
On sunny summer days those who care for these relics of a time past sometimes push them out of the roundhouse into the light of day and remember when their steam whistles could make a kid's blood run fast.
Take A Trip To Yesteryear ... Today
(34) Engine #901, one of the last railroad engines built and operated at House of David, was sold in May of 2000 to the Northwest Ohio Railroad Preservation Group. For the last two years Engine #901 has undergone a major restoration at the group’s facility just outside of Findley, Ohio.
Click to read: Local Newspaper Story
As part of the restoration project the group has constructed a half mile track of 15" rails at their Findley park. Engine #901 was designed and built at the House of David before World War II and was in regular service at our colony park in Benton Harbor until the park was closed in the early 1970’s. The engine was based on the famous prairie locomotive design.
This live steam train was fully restored by Dennis Russel and friends.
The public début of Engine #901 occurred in the Fall of 2002 at the Northwest Ohio Railroad Preservation Park. Once again passengers are able to ride this famous train.
SIDEBAR: Steam Locomotive Nomenclature
During the era of steam railroads a special notation evolved to classify steam locomotives.
This notation was based on the prominent oversized driver wheels which received the power of the steam pistons and transferred it to the rails to move the train forward and the additional guide wheels which supported the engine and kept it on the rails but did not supply power to move the train forward.
The notation is composed of three sets of values describing the arrangement of locomotive wheels. The first set "XX-" represents the number of guide wheels in front of the driver wheels. The second set "-XX-" represents the number of driver wheels and the third set "-XX" represents the guide wheels behind the driver wheels.
With this notation the first engines on the M&B line were 4-4-0's, that is, they had four leading guide wheels at the front of the engine on two axles and four drive wheels behind the front guide wheels also on two axles. The 4-4-0's had no trailing guide wheels behind the drive wheels. Viewed from the side a 4-4-0 engine shows two small wheels in front of two larger wheels. The later 4-6-0 engines looked similar to the 4-4-0's except for the addition of an extra pair of driver wheels. The last engines built at the Israelite House of David in the 1940's were 2-6-2 engines - two leading guide wheels on one axle in front of six driver wheels and, unlike the earlier M&B engines, two trailing guide wheels behind the drive wheels.
In addition to wheel nomenclature various styles of engines were given names. These names were often taken from a famous locomotive model. The 4-4-0 configurations were also known as "American Standards." The later 4-6-0s were appropriately called "ten wheelers" and the final 2-6-2 design was named the "Prairie."