Jerry Joe Jacobson, Champion of Steam, Dead at 74


33 Year Old Railfan
SUGARCREEK, Ohio — Jerry Joe Jacobson, shortline entrepreneur, steam preservationist, and builder of the Age of Steam Roundhouse in Sugarcreek, died September 13 at home after a long illness. He was 74.

The Age of Steam facility was Jacobson’s pride and joy, a multi-million-dollar complex built in 2012 and sprawling over 36 acres with an 18-stall roundhouse, 115-foot turntable, fully equipped steam and diesel shop, a vintage-style water tank, and a separate depot/gift shop, all finished with an astounding attention to historical detail. The roundhouse contains Jacobson’s extensive collection of steam locomotives.

Jacobson was proud of his Ohio heritage, but he was actually born in Jacksonville, Ill., on June 27, 1943. His family later moved to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where Jacobson was on the high school wrestling team and played drums in the marching band. Of this period, he said he was captivated by the sight and sound of steam operating near his hometown on Baltimore & Ohio’s Akron Division.

After high school, Jacobson joined the U.S. Army’s elite 82nd Airborne Division, making more than 50 parachute jumps and rising to the rank of sergeant. He followed up with several years of service in the Army Reserve as a captain.

After his military service, Jacobson attended Kent State University and later earned a degree in anesthesia from a teaching hospital in Lancaster, Pa., after which he became a board-certified nurse anesthetist working at hospitals in the Cleveland and Akron area.

Meanwhile, he pursued his interest in railroads, visiting regularly at the Strasburg Rail Road tourist line in Strasburg, Pa. In 1988, after getting involved with some small Ohio operations, he purchased 90 miles of ex-Wheeling & Lake Erie track between Brewster and Zanesville and called it Ohio Central (OCRR).

Over the next few years he acquired pieces of several more Ohio railroads — some of it via Norfolk Southern’s Thoroughbred Shortline Program — and assembled them into what became the 10-railroad, 550-mile Ohio Central Railroad System (OCRS), based in Coshocton and boasting more than 200 employees.

At its peak under Jacobson’s leadership, OCRS hauled more than 70,000 carloads annually, including delivering coal to what had been an exclusively truck-served American Electric Power generating station at Conesville, Ohio, via trackage rights on NS and CSX; and moving daily-scheduled coil steel trains across five different railroads (B&LE, B&P, CSX, RJ Corman, and OCRS) between Butler, Pa., and Zanesville. In 2008, Jacobson sold the entire OCRS operation to Genesee & Wyoming (G&W) for a reported $234 million.

Jacobson’s love of steam was always part of his Ohio Central equation. One of his first projects was to work with Steamtown to trade a switcher he owned — ex-Jackson Iron & Steel 0-6-0 No. 3, a former Baldwin plant switcher — for Canadian National 4-6-0 No. 1551. Jacobson rebuilt the CN Ten-Wheeler and in 1988 it began hauling tourists out of Sugarcreek along seven miles of the railroad.

Over the years Jacobson’s steam collection grew to the point where he owned 19 locomotives, along with 28 diesels, 24 passenger cars, and other examples of rolling stock. The jewels of his fleet include Canadian Pacific 4-6-2 1293, in regular operation today; Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 763, purchased from the Virginia Museum of Transportation; and Grand Trunk Western 4-8-4 No. 6325, acquired from a group in Battle Creek, Mich.

In the early 2000s, the Ohio Central regularly sponsored mainline-style steam excursions and railroad-theme festivals, some featuring 1293, 1551, 6325, and other Jacobson locomotives running together.

The indefatigable Jacobson could be unconventional, even unpredictable. Despite his love of steam, he abruptly ended steam operations on OCRR before the sale to G&W, citing concerns about liability. Although the opening of the Age of Steam Roundhouse was heralded in the rail preservation world, the complex was not designed for visitation and is generally closed to the public, although the staff conducts pre-arranged Saturday tours from May through October for school and railroad groups.

Although the Jacobson family has not discussed future plans for Age of Steam Roundhouse, they have said the facility will continue to be preserved, supported, and operated. As Jacobson himself said, “I love steam locomotives in any setting, but especially in a roundhouse. It’s home. It’s where steam locomotives ought to be.”

In recent years, Jacobson and his wife, Laura, established an investment business as well as the Jerry & Laura Jacobson Foundation Inc., a charitable institution that, among other gifts, funded the construction of a $10 million dormitory at Virginia’s Fork Union Military Academy, where two of their sons attended high school.

Jacobson served as a member of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA); Ohio Association of Nurse Anesthetists (OANA); Ohio Railroad Tourist Association; and Passenger Car Railroad Alliance. During visits to Central America to help provide medical assistance to the poor, he assisted Doctors Without Borders and the Black Swan organizations.

Jacobson is survived by his wife, Laura; their four children; and two grown children from an earlier marriage. Funeral arrangements are pending.
that is very sad news indeed, the man who dreamed of owning his own railroad and running steam, quite a collection of steam engines they have, I hope the legacy that was left behind continues.