Homegrown locomotive

From the left, Engine 819, James Joseph Dempsey and Joseph P. Dempsey. We are grandson and grandfather and on this day, we visited the Arkansas Railroad Museum in our hometown, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The museum is home for the 819.

From the left, Engine 819, James Joseph Dempsey and Joseph P. Dempsey. We are grandson and grandfather and on this day, we visited the Arkansas Railroad Museum in our hometown, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The museum is home for the 819. The 819, formerly retired and later restored, is currently not in service, but we have high hopes to reverse that condition.


Click on the monster machine and learn more about the 819 and the Arkansas Railroad Museum.

Not everyone can say that a behemouth, 4-8-4 steam locomotive was built in their hometown. If you happen to be from my hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, you can say that. In the early forties 20 “800” series 4-8-4 steam locomotives were built in the United States.

Ten of these locomotives were built at the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone, Pennsylvania and ten were built in the Cotton Belt Shops in Pine Bluff.

Only one of these machines has escaped the ignominy of the scrap yard, Engine 819. The 819 is currently housed in the same building where it was made. The building is a former shop of  the St. Louis and Southwestern (The Cotton Belt Line) Railroad, Southern Pacific Railroad, and finally, the Union Pacific Railroad in that order.

Construction started on the building in 1882 and reached completion in 1894 as part of an extensive complex of railroad shops. This building is all that is left of the former complex. Appropriately, it is now home to the Arkansas Railroad Museum operated by the Cotton Belt Railroad Historical Society. See their site at the link above for complete details on the 819 and the museum. You can also see and learn more of the 819 and the museum on the Photo of the Week page at Corndancer dot-com. We’ll wait here while you look. You can also find more tidbits our Weekly Grist post of April 11, 2010.

Cab of steam locomotive 819

You are looking in the cab of the 819. The controls are removed and in storage. The square device at the bottom of the picture is a seat frame, minus cushion. Inside the firebox hold and on the outside you can see x-ray section grid markings on the boiler shell. These markings were added prior to the big machine’s last inspection.

The 819 entered service in 1942 and was removed from service in the early fifties. The St. Louis and Southwestern Railroad donated the locomotive to the City of Pine Bluff 1n 1955. The city placed the locomotive in a city park where it stayed until 1983 when a local non-profit group, The Cotton Belt Railroad Historical Society, started a project to relocate and rebuild the historic iron horse.

The restoration was successful and the 819 made its first trips in 1986. The locomotive was removed from service in the early nineties for a tear down and inspection. Once the inspection was done, the price of steel needed for replacement parts vastly exceeded local resources. So,  if you know of anyone who can spare about $350,000 (that’s what we’re told that it will take to fire it up again) or so and wants to do something cool, the 819 awaits.

Engineer's station on a diesel-electric locomotive

While the 819 is the star of the show at the Arkansas Railroad Museum, there is plenty more to see including getting up close and personal with the engineer’s station on a former Southern Pacific diesel-electric locomotive. Now you know how the driver’s seat looks. Kids love it. So do their grandfathers.

Old switchboard

A long time ago, when one made a phone call, one talked to an operator who made the connection for you. The operator was likely seated at a device similar to this switchboard on display at the Arkansas Railroad Museum. You can see locomotives and rail cars on display in the background.

Depot stove

You can see just about anything that had anything to do with railroads in the museum. The contraption in the center of the picture is a former “depot stove.” I suspect it was a welcome sight on blustery winter days.

Museums, while not a source of heart thumping excitement are a wellspring of entertainment for the mind and spirit. Unlike the tube, you get to stare and sometimes touch as long as it suits you. In the case of the Arkansas Railroad Museum, the building is also a museum piece. It is a rare opportunity to visit a Victorian era industrial building which has not changed much since it was being used for its original purpose. The nooks and crannies are neat. And is a good thing to have neat nooks and crannies.

For those of you who do not yet have enough of the 819 and the museum, visit our Weekly Grist Gallery and see more pictures from this trip. Please forgive the shameless images of me.

Thanks for dropping by,

Joe Dempsey
Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind


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