The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

  NUMBER 141


© November 15 2009   

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The House of David Railroad – Part I
An Historical 15” Gauge Railroad With A Brand New Future

Written by Dave Schoeffler

Just outside Benton Harbor Michigan, a small group of park train enthusiasts are toiling to revive one of the premier miniature railroads of the early 20th century. When reopened in 2010, The House of David Railroad will have the distinction of faring passengers into a 2nd Century of use! Many readers already know about this treasure. . . chances are, some of you actually rode it. But, for those of you who didn’t get this opportunity I would like to bring you up to speed with a little history, a few surprises and a real live happy ending.

First The History

This is not the typical “man-builds-railroad” story. Benjamin and Mary Purnell (right), were preachers of sorts who founded the House of David religious sect in 1903. With the backing of some rather wealthy followers, they purchased a 250-acre resort property in 1906: Actually a hot springs/resort that catered to wealthy Chicago area customers. The twist? All the workers, builders and operators of newly named Eden Springs were Purnell’s church members. . . a commune if you will. To belong, members had to be willing to divest their worldly assets and work hard for the common good. Albert and Louis Bauschke, owners of the second-largest wagon factory in the world behind Studebaker, were the two most significant contributors and members, pledging their entire wealth ($400,000 in 1902) to launch Purnell’s resort endeavor.

Benjamin and Mary Purnell

Members lived on and from the property, building residences, shops and structures and growing all the colony’s food. And, despite a rather strict regimen focusing on a vegan diet and a celibate Christian lifestyle, their numbers grew to about 1000 HOD members!

Curiously, the colony men were not allowed to shave or cut their hair (living in the likeness of Jesus). To a great extent, the mystique of an entire community of long-haired, bearded men, became a real curiosity and when tied to the holistic services, the property’s small zoo, amusement rides and souvenirs, Eden Springs became a genuine destination for millions of people over 70 years. Of course, when people in large numbers gather on a large property they need to be transported from place to place . . . sounds like miniature railroad time to me.

Enter the Trains

While trains were not on anyone’s “to-do” list in the early days, they soon became a wonderful centerpiece. How did it happen? While manning a recruiting booth at the St. Louis World’s Fair , colony members noticed the effectiveness of small trains to shuttle people to and fro and reasoned they would work well at Eden Springs resort. In 1908, Brother Bob Craig, a former railroad engineer, was sent to New York to purchase their first miniature locomotive (a Cagney) and three passenger cars (right).

House of David's first train was powered by a live steam 4-4-0 Cagney.

With tradesmen of many types, it didn’t take long to lay the colony’s first loop of track which was dubbed "The House of David Railroad". The picture on the left shows work in progress on a super-elevated curve. While they could tell it would become an important link in their transportation system, this first train service was quickly found to be a little inadequate for moving large numbers of people.

So, using the idle winter months, the colony machine shop began building four more locomotives and riding cars almost immediately. They disassembled the Cagny loco piece by piece, making duplicate parts and castings, only in a slightly larger scale.

Soon, the House of David had their own miniature train fleet. The photo on the right is a rare shot of all eight HOD locomotives at steam-up in front of the original roundhouse. The first four built were 4-4-0 configurations followed by four “Ten Wheelers” or 4-6-0’s. They served the tiny railroad dutifully for almost forty years. But, by the end of WWII, the original locomotives were showing signs of wear. New, more modern steam engine designs were planned and built using a 2-6-0 prairie design. As they were larger, they were able to pull more passengers. Only three had to be built to replace the original fleet of nine that had hauled tens of thousands of passengers since 1908..

An interesting side note . . . the trains at the colony were run by the young men or boys of the colony (right) in the second picture. They lived together in rooms above the round house and ate together at the central dining room in a nearby building.

To insure the visitor's comfort, with the advent of new locomotives, new passenger cars were also constructed (right).   As a prototype, colony engineers turned to the early street cars that brought passengers from the boat docks for inspiration and to the carriages built by the Baushke Brothers Carriage works.   The new cars were streamlined with comfortable contoured seats and shade canopies.  Many were even upholstered.  Of course, nothing was wasted in the transition.  The old rough benches from the original train, for example,  were re-purposed as extra bench seating throughout the park.

The little trains at the House of David were so successful that in the first full twelve-week season in 1909 over 70,000 tickets were sold to ride them. This represented about half of the visitors to the park. And, train use increased with the crowds and number of trains. Over 85,000 visitors rode the trains in the 1913 summer season alone.

Because the equipment and tracks were well designed and safety was publicly promoted, the little trains were involved in very few accidents. Only one accident in the entire history of the little trains resulted in an actual injury of a passenger. In August of 1912 one passenger car overturned on a curve due to the passengers all leaning to the outside of car. The passenger broke his leg. All passengers involved in the accident publicly absolved the park of any negligence . . . a magnanimous gesture not likely to occur today.

During the decades between the World Wars the House of David became known nationally and Eden Park was jammed to overflowing every summer. The HOD trains certainly earned their keep.

Right of Way and Trackside

There were plenty of trackside and right-of-way features keeping colony members busy. A small depot was constructed and later expanded to include a train shed and souvenir stands. Another depot was also constructed at the opposite end of the property and a large trestle allowed the little trains to traverse the Eden Springs Park valley that divided the property. When the park first opened in 1908 the west trestle (shown below) was a connecting point on the miniature railroad to other resorts south of Eden Springs. At 300 feet long and almost 30-feet high, the west trestle was the highest and longest miniature railroad trestle in the world.



Eventually a similar east trestle was built to allow the trains to loop back to the north end of Eden Springs. Construction of a south depot shown below and a train shed to house the rolling stock in the southwestern portion of the park completed major components of the train system. The South Depot (below) is my favorite landmark because as you can see it is a ride-through experience complete with souvenir stands and food concessions. That had to be fun!

In part II of this article, I will show you the HOD right of way plan and tell you about the status of its trains, plans for the railroad’s revival and as well as who is undertaking this wonderful venture. Stay tuned . . .


Written by Dave Schoeffler

Pictures and content courtesy of . . .

House of David Museum / Dan Geib

Israelite House of David

Other websites on this subject...

The House of David - How a Fortune was Built on Hosannas and Hospitality


continued in The House of David Railroad - Part II


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