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HAMMOND | A group of local railroad enthusiasts hopes to bring new life to the city's largest outdoor history exhibit.

The Nickel Plate Road No. 624 steam locomotive has stood across Sohl Avenue from the Hammond Civic Center for more than half a century, and train buffs are forming a nonprofit corporation to restore the aging engine and its companion cars.

"Our ultimate goal is to get the 624 running again," said Kevin Haggi, of the Hammond & Northwest Indiana Railroad Preservation Society.

Though early in the process -- the group's Web site won't be up until next week, and it will likely be summer before its nonprofit status is affirmed -- the idea is not so far-fetched, Haggi said, as similar Nickel Plate steam locomotives currently operate in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.

"The one in Indianapolis is virtually a twin to the one in Hammond," he said.

Built in Ohio in 1922, No. 624 logged nearly 1.7 million miles before being taken out of service in 1955 to become part of the exhibit commemorating Hammond's central role in the steam locomotive era.

A South Shore Railroad caboose and Milwaukee Railroad refrigerator car, which earned national attention last fall when four men were found living in it, were added to the exhibit in 1976.

With support from city agencies, the society hopes first to restore the caboose and refrigerator car.

"We want to start at the back of the train and work forward," said Haggi, who has volunteers lined up to rebuild the interior of the caboose, which was destroyed in a 1976 fire.

The refrigerator car will be repainted to resemble those used by George Hammond's meat-packing company, from which the city got its name, Haggi said.

And though it's been more than a decade since Ol' No. 624 has had a mechanical inspection, Haggi said he's confident the engine can be restored as a fully functioning mobile railroad museum and tourist attraction.

Both Homewood and Rochelle in Illinois have built popular attractions based on their railroad histories, and Hammond can, too, Haggi said.

Get involved:

Contact the society through their Yahoo Internet group at finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/NickelPlateRoad624/, or by calling Richard Lytle of the Hammond Public Library's Suzanne G. Long Local History Room at (219) 931-5100.

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