Conspiracy theorists have always been around. People have long questioned the veracity of events like the moon landing, or the assassination of President Kennedy. Thanks to the internet, such theories spread faster and further, and pretty much every major event that happens in the world today has some person screaming behind a computer screen that it was a “false flag” or a fake event perpetrated by crisis actors hired by some shady government entity. Taking advantage the bulletin board systems of the early internet was Indianapolis lawyer Linda Thompson, who founded the American Justice Foundation – a fancy sounding organization that peddled conspiracy theories online and through anti-government video tapes. One of her most famous claims, made in the ’90s but surviving to this day, is that the government is building concentration camps to round up citizens – one such camp being the Amtrak repair facility in Beech Grove, Indiana.
If you’re into such conspiracy theories, then you’re now reading the blog of a person who has worked inside a “FEMA death camp” – ask me anything! On the other hand, if you’re a normal person, you’re reading the blog of a person who has gotten a chance to film and interview Amtrak employees who work at the historical shops at Beech Grove (and could probably spend weeks of her life content to wander the shops merely recording all of the interesting work that happens there every day). Originally built in 1904 by the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (Big Four) Railway, the shops were later acquired by the New York Central. With the merger of the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads in 1968, the shops became the property of the Penn Central, who later sold it to Amtrak in 1975. One of the facility’s first major projects was to convert old steam-based power systems to electric Head-End Power (HEP).
Men of the Car Shop, Big Four Shops in Beech Grove, 1919. Photo from the Indiana Historical Society.
Today, the shop is used for all sorts of heavy maintenance for Amtrak’s fleet of train cars and locomotives. Each building on the campus has a particular function – none of which include gas chambers for mass executions (I honestly wish I were kidding. Some people actually think this stuff). Two coach shops overhaul passenger coaches (one does light repairs, while the other takes care of heavier damage like from wrecks), while a locomotive shop overhauls, rebuilds, and performs maintenance on locomotives and NPCUs. Historically the Forge shop was where you would find blacksmiths fabricating train parts, but today you’ll find folks doing things like rebuilding couplers or truck assemblies (the wheels under your train cars). One of my favorites, the Trim shop, puts the visual touches on train cars, from upholstery to paint, and includes a special shop devoted to decal making. There’s also a building devoted to training and maintenance, and another with offices for administrators. You’ll also find plenty of train cars and locomotives stored on tracks throughout the facility – many of which came for evaluation on whether they would make good candidates for overhauling/rebuilding (some just aren’t, unfortunately). Although there are certainly a lot of moving parts across the whole facility, the major bread and butter of the work that goes on here is overhauling train cars. In many instances it is cheaper to completely rebuild a coach or locomotive than it is to outright purchase a new one, so the shop is constantly performing this task. In 2013 Beech Grove repaired and returned to service five wrecked locomotives, overhauled/remanufactured 91 Superliner cars, 20 Horizon coaches, 13 Viewliner sleepers, 13 Surfliners, 3 NPCU/cabbages, and 5 heritage dining cars. That is a heck of a lot of work, and Beech Grove is quite the hub of activity – but hardly the death camp that Thompson made so many believe.
1912 view of the windows on one of the car shops at Beech Grove, photo from the Indiana Historical Society Library.
Due to the historical nature of the Beech Grove shops, there have been many overhauls done to the facility itself over the years. Upon Amtrak’s acquisition of Beech Grove from the Penn Central, much was in disarray and had not seen the maintenance that it should have – something to be expected from a railway company that had gone bankrupt (at the time, Penn Central’s bankruptcy was the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history. Amtrak was formed because most private American railroad companies were failing, and could not turn a profit operating passenger service). When originally constructed, Beech Grove was like many factories of the day, featuring large banks of windows on the walls and ceiling to serve as primary illumination. While conspiracy theorists would have you believe that windows were taken out to hide illicit activities within, the simple fact is that technology has come a long way since 1904, and electric lamps can provide much of the illumination needed in the shops without having to worry about the many windows that had broken over the years (age and storm damage certainly took their toll) which were expensive to repair, and were energy inefficient. Upgrades to concrete floors in the shops by Amtrak were hardly sinister – some of the buildings at Beech Grove originally had wooden floors that were quite old and certainly needed replacing, while other floors were simply hard-packed dirt (repairing fire-belching steam locomotives in a shop with wood floors would likely be ill-advised) – just a modern upgrade.
Thompson passed away in 2009 from an overdose (what the government wants you to believe, no doubt, I’m sure it was the black helicopters that got her), and her strange legacy has led many conspiracy theorists to make pilgrimages to a little town called Beech Grove. YouTube is chock full of folks that followed in Thompson’s literal footsteps to the fences of the facility, video cameras in hand, to see the supposed death camp in person. Some more outlandish folks have even employed the use of drones to fly overhead, something that Amtrak’s police isn’t too fond of. Forget the craziness – if you want a real view of Beech Grove, look no further. Beside the misplaced hype, Beech Grove is a truly interesting place where around 500 Amtrak employees work hard every day, and it is an integral part of America’s Railroad.
Work in Coach Shop 1, and the newest Veterans “Cabbage” in the Locomotive Shop. Although the proper term is NPCU (Non-Powered Control Unit), some folks call them cabbages, reflecting their usage as part operating cab, part baggage car.
This NPCU from the west coast is being completely rebuilt in the Locomotive Shop. These cars were once locomotives themselves built in the 70s, and retired in the late 90s. After retirement some were converted to their current state – their engines were removed, and sliding doors were installed for baggage. They are used on routes where trains are operated in push/pull service, with the locomotive on one end and the NPCU on the other. With the control cab from when it was a locomotive still intact, the train can be operated from either end.
The newest NPCU in the Veterans Scheme, assigned to Chicago service. Note that although this car is no longer powered, it still has a fuel tank – the tank now contains concrete to offset the weight difference with the engines having been removed.
These Talgo cars do not belong to Amtrak, but are being stored here after a legal battle between maker Talgo and the State of Wisconsin. Originally commissioned by the state for Hiawatha service, governor Scott Walker cancelled them despite the cars being practically finished. Talgo declared a breach of contract, abandoned their facility in Milwaukee, and sent the cars to be stored at Beech Grove.
And if you’re bored, here’s a drone flyover:
Hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but in the end Beech Grove is simply a historic campus used for working on trains, and doing a pretty awesome job of it. Kudos to all of the hardworking Beech Grove employees for their part in keeping America’s Railroad running.