Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Railroad aficionado fighting lonely battle

by John Halverson

May 17, 2012

Ed Yaeger was walking slowly.

He had just left yet another meeting of the Lake Geneva Park Commission and was making his way down the city hall steps.

At the meeting recently, members had sung “Happy Birthday” to Yaeger, who had turned 85 that day. They gave him cupcakes and a birthday card signed by some of the city hall staff.

But what was to follow was hardly a present.

Within moments of their musical salute, the Park Commission summarily voted down Yaeger’s latest attempt to establish a park to commemorate a time when the railroad graced Lake Geneva. It was not the first time the idea was rejected.

“I think that’s it,” Yaeger told a reporter as he left. “I’ll go on to other things.”

When a long-time Yaeger observer was told this story, the man just laughed. Giving up isn’t something Yaeger is known for.

This isn’t a story about the merits of Yaeger’s proposal nor an attempt to portray the commission members as hard-hearted scoundrels.

Most of them simply see too many problems with the project. The old Chicago and North Western turntable and engine house are buried somewhere in the brush off Sage Street, behind the city utility commission. If it were named a park then someone, and some money, would be needed to keep it up. There’s a question if there’s enough space for anything meaningful. And, they say, there are plenty of plaques around town to commemorate the railroad including one near the proposed park site.

Yaeger argues that the only way to preserve the railroad site for the long-haul is to designate it a park.

During the meeting, park commission members were unceasingly respectful of Yaeger, frequently calling him “Mr.” Yaeger. Several on the board had known him since he was on the council in the late 1990s. So this isn’t a story about his treatment either.

Instead this is a story about one man’s unrelenting quest.

The word “quixotic” can’t help but come to mind. As in Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

“1. Caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality.”

The railroad park idea isn’t his only “quixotic” project. For years, Yaeger asked the Regional News to properly explain Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) districts. If explaining TIF isn’t “an unreachable goal,” what is? Finally, that wish was fulfilled in a column by former editor Lisa Seiser a few weeks before she left.

So, don’t count Yaeger out yet.

As part of his presentation to committee members, Yaeger had prepared a 30-minute video he’d given them prior to the meeting. Yaeger did the voice-over as he used a hand-held camera to show where the train once came through town. That dates back to 1871, about the time of the Chicago fire, when the wealthy of the big city sought solace and property in Lake Geneva. While Yaeger’s description of the train was vivid, what the camera showed was an old bridge, a walking path, a thicket of wood and a few wooden markers.

Yaeger’s interest in trains is well-known. He’s even made a model of what he’s now

At the meeting itself, Yaeger sat patiently as the Park Committee went through its agenda. With his long white hair touching the collar of the white shirt he’d worn for the occasion, it wasn’t impossible to see him as the much younger man who played in a band and raced cars.

Yaeger looked shy and embarrassed during the commission’s rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

After thanking them, Yaeger made his case once again and then sat relatively quietly as the board discussed it for the umpteenth time. Even Ed isn’t exactly sure how long he’s been bringing his park proposal to the city — “at least 5 years,” he says— but it’s clearly been long enough for some park commission members.

“We’ve been talking about this for years,” one member said at the meeting. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

When it was decided once again to reject the idea, there was only one dissenting vote- — one voice in favor of Ed’s railroad project. That man’s support was emphatic, but it seemed as much for Yaeger as it was for the plan’s merits.

As the vote was being recorded, Ed opened up his birthday card, a small smile creasing his face. He left the meeting shortly after the vote, passing on whatever else the commission had on its agenda, and made his way down the city hall steps.

It was a hot, dry day, Aug. 11, 1975, when passenger service to Lake Geneva ended. It was a slow death, actually. Williams Bay became the end of the line in 1888. A concrete bridge was built in 1908, but by then the turntable had been displaced by one in the Bay. By 1975, rickety tracks had slowed the train to 15 mph. It was so slow a bicycle race was organized to prove that it was faster to travel to Chicago on two wheels than by rail.

The organizer of that race, a Fontana businessman named William Sills, had fought a long, and ultimately losing, battle to save the train.

A Regional News editorial the week passenger service ended, still offered faint hope. “Sills has still not given up the battle...”

The same could be said of Yaeger.

Over time, bramble covered what might remain of the turntable and engine house — but Yaeger hasn’t stopped dreaming.

It was sunny the next afternoon, when a reporter arrived to take a picture of Yaeger standing next to the historical sign near the park site.

While Yaeger was waiting, he saw two out-of-town visitors reading the sign and decided to give them a tour of the flat land and thicket where the train once ran. As the trio emerged from the brush, Yaeger led the way. He was smiling and walking more vigorously than he had the night before.

The reporter asked him one more time: “So are you going to stop trying?”

Yaeger shrugged and smiled. “Oh, who knows?”

When pressed further he smiled again.

“I just have a feeling good things are going to happen.”

Yaeger then pointed to a small “V” in an otherwise shapeless horizon. The train once came from there, over what is now the walking path we were standing on. He described what it would look, 100 or so years ago, when the train still came here.

“It would be coming right at us,” Yaeger said, as if he could see what we could not.