Remembering the Kent Heritage Festival Trains

As the Kent Freedom Festival train boards passengers on the former Erie Railroad tracks above, a westbound CSX train passes on the former Baltimore & Ohio below.

Independence Day brings to mind thoughts of fireworks, picnics and, once upon a time, train rides in Kent.

In the early 2000s short trains rides over former Erie Railroad were a fixture of the annual Heritage Festival held during a weekend close to July 4.

I don’t know when the festival train rides began but I was on hand for five of them between 2003 and 2010.

In 2009 the festival was on the 4th because it fell on a Saturday.

My hazy memory is that I also was there in 2011 when the Heritage Festival excursions ran for the last time, but I couldn’t find any photographs that I made. So maybe my memory is faulty.,

The consist of the excursions usually was two open-window Nickel Plate Road coaches and a caboose, all of it owned by the Midwest Railway Preservation Society of Cleveland.

The motive power typically was Akron Barberton Cluster Railway SW1500 No. 1502.

In 2003 the trains were pulled by Wheeling & Lake GP35 No. 200 in observance of the Ohio Bicentennial that year.

Until 2010, the trains boarded just north of Main Street and ran eastward to a point between Lake Rockwell and Ravenna roads.

In 2010 the route changed to going west a short distance on the ex-Erie and taking the connection to the W&LE Cleveland Subdivision. They went south to Sunnybrook Road.

The boarding location with the route change became the former Erie passenger station.

The trains were popular and always seem to have a good crowd onboard.

They were ideal for “daisy pickers” with the ride being not too long, not too short and not too expensive.

You could walk up, buy a ticket and climb aboard. The festival drew a crowd of thousands so selling tickets wasn’t a problem.

I rode in 2003 and 2010, both times in a coach. Caboose tickets usually sold out right away.

The W&LE ended the excursions by saying track conditions raised safety concerns.

There may have been some truth in that, but I suspect there were other reasons behind the cancellation of the excursions.

The W&LE did allow excursions to operate to Kent from Glenwillow during the 2013 and 2014 festivals.

I never got out to photograph either of those excursions, which used locomotives of the Cleveland Commercial Railroad.

I don’t know why I missed them but now I wished I hadn’t because the Wheeling would later prohibit all excursion train operations on its rails.

I’d probably become complacent about excursion trains on the Wheeling because there were be so many of them.

They would always be there because they always had been.

I created just over 100 slides of the trains I saw, chased and rode. Many of those images are just so-so and I found that I duplicated a lot of the photo angles.

This raises the question of how much photo documentation does any one photographer need of a given rail operation.

Railroads have changed their thinking about public relations and are less likely now to send rolling stock or a locomotive to a community festival for display or to allow short train rides.

Their public relations work is primarily conducted through social media.

The Kent Heritage Festival excursion trains were like so many other things in life. You don’t always appreciate what you have until it’s gone.

Nonetheless, I appreciate what I was able to get when the opportunity was there. I could have done more, but having done something is better than not having done anything or being unable to do anything at all, which is situation today.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

Akron Barberton Cluster Railway SW1500 No. 1502 was usually the motive power for the Kent Heritage Festival trains.

The caboose was always a popular place to ride.

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