Remembering the ‘Lionel Bridge Caper’

What started as a high school prank nearly 50 years ago has remained a landmark of Fort Dodge for years — and now the perpetrators are ready to come forth and “fess up” to their deed.

The six teenage boys who stole into Crawford Park in the middle of the night in 1969 and painted “LIONEL” on the side of a Chicago & North Western Railway bridge are now 67 years old. They figure the statute of limitations on the white lettering they painted on the bridge has long passed.

The 72-foot bridge over Soldier Creek was erected in 1901. It has long been abandoned by the railroad, the rails removed and replaced by a 2.9-mile pedestrian and bicycling pathway called the Fort Dodge Nature Trails. But one wonders how many of those who walk or ride the trail through Snell-Crawford Park know what or who Lionel is.

“At a camp in Fort Dodge during RAGBRAI,” said one of the instigators, Scott Swinney, “we told the story of the bridge. We were pretty proud of ourselves. We said, we are the guys who did it! A much younger woman who was listening said, ‘Maybe you can find the answer for me. Who’s Lionel?'”

Owning a Lionel train set was a rite of passage for the Baby Boomer generation.

The Lionel Corp. is an American toy manufacturer best known for its toy trains and model railroads. Lionel trains was founded in 1900 by Joshua Lionel Cowen and during its peak years in the 1950s, the company sold $25 million worth of trains per year as one of the leading toy manufacturers in the world. Lionel Electric Trains continues to this day, based in New York City.

“I owned a Lionel train my whole life and now my son, Michael, who is 39, does,” said Swinney, who stayed in the Minneapolis area after retiring four years ago from a career in surgical medical sales. “If you had a bike, you wanted it to be a Schwinn. If you had a train, you wanted it to be Lionel.”

The Lionel Six “wanted it to be a double-take thing — to give people a chuckle as they drive through the park,” Swinney said. “Seriously, at the age of 67 my friends and I have been in awe of its continuing existence all these years later. And we are reaching an age where its impact is diminishing with the younger generations.”

Lori Branderhorst, director of Fort Dodge’s Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department, which owns and maintains the bridge, believes it is a real treasure to citizens of the city — regardless of their age. The city purchased the bridge from Chicago and North Western in 1984.

“It’s a great talking point for the city,” she said. “We cleared the creek bed away and it’s just a beautiful focal point. The name ‘Lionel’ evokes lots of memories from all of the generations.”

How did it all come about, you ask?

Ron Schrader, who earned a Ph.D. in statistics, taught at the University of New Mexico for 30 years and chaired its Department of Mathematics and Statistics, recounts the story of what he calls the “Lionel Bridge Caper.”

The Lionel Six comprised five members of the Fort Dodge Senior High School Class of 1968. Besides Swinney and Schrader, they were Mark Scott, who lives in the Minneapolis area; Stan Baker, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area; and Duane Lindner, who lives in the San Francisco area. One other who joined them was not part of their class and chose to remain anonymous.

The bridge had been a target of graffiti and one of the six snuck down to the bridge one night with black paint and replaced X-rated words with G-rated ones, Swinney said. But then came the thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny with that old bridge with nothing on it that we put Lionel on it and make the lettering size-correct?”

It was supposed to be a graduation prank, Schrader said, but their first attempt in summer of 1968 failed when they didn’t do their homework on logistics of proper stencils and underestimated the skill needed to negotiate painting in a harness while holding a stencil and can of spray paint. When an unexpected gust of wind shredded the stencil he was holding, it was back to the drawing boards — and the six were off for the first year of college.

Undaunted, they returned in the summer of 1969 while home from college and vowed to do the job correctly. Schrader’s parents were gone on vacation so they set up shop in the garage and made the stencils out of sturdy cardboard and put on side and bottom braces so that the Lionel letters would be perfectly placed. Schrader was the lightest of the six and was chosen to go over the top of the bridge in a sling, with rope knots taught by a Scout leader. To keep Schrader from spinning around at the end of a rope, they got a ladder he could stand on and chose a night when the creek was flooding and the road through Crawford Park was closed.

They stacked the 6-foot-high stencils on the top of a car and drove to the park. “The stencils were secured with the braces from the top of the bridge and from the bottom. “With two guys in the creek holding the ladder, and the top belay,” Schrader said, “I was able to work pretty effectively with two hands. The stencils slammed into place easily, and painting was not too hard after that — except for it being the middle of the night.”

The group then headed out to celebrate with an early morning breakfast at a truck stop with white paint all over their hands.

“This was the most euphoric group I’ve ever been with — we had pulled it off!” Schrader said. “We were sure the police were going to be on our tails, and hoped we’d covered our tracks. We waited for the story to hit the newspaper. Nothing. Finally, and I don’t know if we waited a week, we phoned in a tip to the Messenger. A few days later a big picture by Messenger photographer Fred Larson of our handiwork appeared in the paper — I’m sure we all still have a clipping of that.

“We’ve joked over the years that this is the most significant thing any of us ever did. We were sure we’d be in big trouble, but there never seemed to be an investigation. This was as much fun as I’ve ever had, and it bonded a bunch of us together for life. The bridge had been a place for kids to write obscene graffiti before our caper — it seems like that completely ended afterwards and everybody respected the quality of our work. I couldn’t be happier that it now is a community landmark!”

When the group returned to Fort Dodge for their FDSH 20th class reunion, it was obvious that someone had touched up their work, repainting LIONEL in white lettering. “That is when I knew that it was not our project, but it now belonged to the city,” Swinney said.

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