We have an idea. Actually, it’s more of a dream. We hope that you had a chance to read our story in Sunday’s Commercial about the Arkansas Railroad Museum and old Engine 819 — both housed right here in Pine Bluff.
It’s been decades since the steam engine was on the rails, but we think it ought to be again.
SSW (St. Louis Southwestern Railway) 819, one of the last surviving Class 8 steam locomotives in existence, was built in Pine Bluff and operated by Cotton Belt from 1942 until 1955, when steam engines were phased out. Donated to the City of Pine Bluff, it sat outside in a park for nearly 30 years until a group of Pine Bluff businessmen approached Cotton Belt Superintendent Robert McClanahan with the idea of restoring it. It is now housed inside the same building where it was manufactured.
Among the many railroads that were started in Arkansas, or that impacted the state’s growth and economy, the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, known as the Cotton Belt, experienced much of its growth in Arkansas, and is memorialized in an old locomotive shop in Pine Bluff where its most famous alumnus, SSW 819, the last of the 800 Class locomotives built in Pine Bluff during World War II, now sits rusting away.
That original restoration effort was the beginning of what is now known as the Arkansas Railroad Museum, located inside the former locomotive shop that was operated by the Cotton Belt until Union Pacific bought out the railway in 1996. Union Pacific owns the building that houses the museum and leases it to the city of Pine Bluff.
In the mid-1980s, old 819 made several runs to Tyler, Texas, and back, but again fell into disrepair, likely needing millions of dollars to be fully restored once again. Maintaining these old iron giants is expensive, and keeping them on the tracks requires a full-time team of specialists.
Imagine if we could see 819 roar to life again on the tracks and what a tourist attraction it would be. We remember fondly the day the engine rolled out of the Cotton Belt shop, fully restored and ready for her glory days to be relived. Thousands of people turned out, cameras in hand and children on their shoulders, to watch 819 chugging and spewing steam through downtown Pine Bluff.
The logistical challenges are great, to be sure, but it could be done again. In Pine Bluff, we need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to ways to attract new people to our city. It’s not that we don’t have tourist attractions, it’s that they are not being properly utilized.
Let’s find a way to restore 819 once again. It could blow a breath of hot steam into our local economy. All aboard!