ELLIS — The miniature Aerotrain replica at the Ellis Railroad Museum is out of commission after it was derailed by an object on the tracks and vandalized. The Ellis Police Department is investigating.
Ellis Police Chief Taft Yates said the damage, which included windows broken out of the train cars, happened sometime overnight Saturday or Sunday.
The damage was reported Sunday, after the two passenger cars of the train derailed when it hit a block of wood in the tracks.
Virgil Schuster was driving the one-third sized replica train slowly around the track as part of its maintenance when it hit the block.
“He was going along and heard some loud noise and all of a sudden, he couldn’t go,” said Glen Keller, director of the museum.
The back end of the first car and the front end of the rear car left the tracks. The engine did not leave the tracks. Schuster was not injured, and there were no passengers on the train.
The extent of the damage is not yet known, but Keller said it was estimated to be several thousand dollars.
“At this point, we’re not 100-percent sure what the damage is. We’ll have to get the car off the tracks and take it all apart and see exactly where we’re at,” he said.
Several railroad ties also were damaged, he said.
“We’re guessing between $2,000 and $5,000,” he said.
The amount of damage means charges against a suspect or suspects would be a felony, Yates said.
Getting a total assessment of damages could take a week or two, as the people who help with the train are all volunteers, Keller said.
Funds to maintain the train mostly come from donations, Keller said. The museum does receive money from the city, but those funds also are used for staffing and maintenance of the museum in addition to running the train.
Repairing the damages could delay plans for some needed refurbishment, Keller said.
“Over the last two years, we’ve gotten to the point where we’re wanting to get it refinished and repainted. This type of thing throws a kink into that,” he said.
The train is a replica of GM’s Aerotrain, a streamlined experimental train the company introduced in the 1950s. The train in Ellis was manufactured by Ottaway Amusement Co. of Wichita in the late 1950s or early 1960s. It’s believed only about a half dozen were built.
The train was brought to Ellis by Francis “Buddy” King, an Ellis businessman and former mayor. He purchased the train in 1993 from Michigan, where it was used as a tourist attraction. King died the following year, and the little railroad was named the BK&E for “Buddy” King and Ellis.
“He felt Ellis needed that attraction,” Keller said. “He was fascinated by it.”
The city’s history is tied to the railroad, now operated by Union Pacific.
The Kansas Pacific Railway purchased the land where it had placed a water station in 1867 and established a depot, hotel and a few shops in 1873.
The Kansas Pacific Railroad Association helped bring the miniature train to Ellis, and volunteers helped set up the train and the tracks it runs on. The depot from Penokee was purchased and moved to the site.
The train is available for rides to visitors of the museum, but two events each year give it a real workout — the Haunted Train at Halloween and the Polar Express at Christmas.
“Those are two events the whole community gets involved in, and the facility is used for that. You wait in line a long time during the Polar Express,” said Keller, who has driven the train for that event.
“We would appreciate any credible information because of the historical value of the train, not only to the city of Ellis but to surrounding communities, the state,” Yates said. “People from all over the country have been on this train.”
“It’s just a part of the community,” said Verlin Colborg, an employee at the museum. “When people come to the museum, the kids, they want to ride that train.”
“We’ll do everything we can to get it back in shape and get it going,” Keller said.