Hubbard man forges ode to trains and steel
HUBBARD — When Rick Rowlands bought the property that now is the Youngstown Steel Heritage Foundation back in 2000, he said nothing was there except a few trees.
Now, owing to Rowlands’ enthusiasm for trains and history, the property is host to a large stationary steam engine, a small steam locomotive and a growing length of railroad tracks, among other distinctive rail and steel items.
Growing up in Hubbard, Rowlands became familiar with the trains that passed through the area.
“My mother worked at a diner on one side of the tracks, and my grandmother worked at a sandwich shop on the other side of the tracks. Between the two, I was always down there,” Rowlands said.
Conductors let Rowlands explore the trains.
“You can’t do that anymore,” Rowlands said, “Back then, you could do such things.”
Rowlands, 47, graduated from Hubbard High School in 1992. He attended Youngstown State University before getting a job with — you guessed it — a railroad. He worked for another railroad and a foundry and machine shop before taking his current job as a track supervisor with Youngstown and Southeastern Railroad.
“I am in charge of maintaining the track,” Rowlands said. “I’m the guy who replaces the crossing signs when people knock them down. I’m the guy who cuts trees when they fall on the track.”
As for the Youngstown Steel Heritage Foundation, it was a project Rowlands said he always wanted to do.
In 1995, Rowlands found the stationary steam engine, which was built in 1914, still inside the Youngstown Sheet & Tube plant and wanted to put it to better use.
“I was, I guess, too naive to know I couldn’t do anything about it,” Rowlands joked. He persuaded the powers-that-be to donate the engine, and “10 months and several miracles later” Rowlands and his friends had disassembled and moved the machine — though it still was stored in a different part of the mill for almost a decade after that.
Then came the purchase of the property at 2261 Hubbard Road, Youngstown, where the engine now is housed in a building that Rowlands calls a museum, although he admits it’s not what people typically think of when they hear the word. There are no plaques with information or neat displays — just real machinery preserved as it was when it was in use.
“The thing is, anymore everything is so homogenized and commercialized that you don’t see anything real,” Rowlands said. “It doesn’t get any more real than this.”
NARROW GAUGE RAIL
Rowlands said the stationary engine is “neat,” but it’s not what people come to see. The real attraction was acquired in 2015: a narrow gauge steam engine locomotive from Jones and Laughlin Steel in Pittsburgh.
“These were small — of course, they didn’t have a lot of space in the steel mill,” Rowlands said of the narrow gauge trains.
After restoring the locomotive and laying down some track, Rowlands was able to open to the public and offer rides in 2019.
“Everyone seemed excited that there was something to do in the Mahoning Valley,” he said. He added the Youngstown Steel Heritage locomotive is the only running steam train engine within a three-hour drive.
Of course, Rowlands was unable to open in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and decided to stay closed this year as well. The area around the stationary steam engine has become a workshop space for Rowlands and other Steel Heritage Foundation volunteers. The foundation has approximately 50 volunteers, of which about two dozen are fairly active, Rowlands said.
The building’s electricity comes from solar panels, the batteries for which are stored in another old train on the property. The Steel Heritage Foundation also has a running Brookwell locomotive with a combustion engine, which Rowlands and volunteers rebuilt after it spent 30 years in a museum in Pennsylvania.
When Rowlands is not at work, he heads out to the Steel Heritage Foundation to lay down more track for the Jones and Laughlin locomotive.
He joked that his wife, Zara, a Youngstown State University professor, “tolerates” his zeal.
“This is all I do. I’m obsessed,” Rowlands said.
Rowlands said he met his wife about 15 years ago. They have four cats, all with distinct personalities.
Rowlands has every intention of opening the museum in 2022 and possibly changing the museum’s name to “J&L Narrow Gauge Museum” to highlight its star attraction.