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



The mighty 819: some repairs needed

Engine 819

Engine 819, restored in 1986 to original operating condition and put into service for special steam locomotive rail trips lies idle in the Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, after a partial dis-assembly for a Federal Railroad Administration inspection, it fell victim to rising metal prices and a shortage of funds to complete the necessary repairs.

In its heyday, the 819 pulled trains with the best of them. It is one of the last steam locomotives built for main line use and was absolutely the last steam locomotive built in the Cotton Belt St. Louis and Southwestern Railroad (more popularly known as the Cotton Belt), shops in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. To get a few more details about the life, times, and a picure of the restored 819, visit the Photo of the Week page at Corndancer dot com, where this story started. Click here to go there. We’ll wait here.

High prices, dwindling experts

The 819, once proudly restored, fell victim to ballooning metal prices and a dwindling pool of knowledgeable volunteer labor. The restoration effort started in 1983 and was completed by 1986, led by current and retired employees of the Cotton Belt, many of whom worked in the steam locomotive area of the Pine Bluff shops.

engine 819 driver wheels

The driver wheels on the 819 are about shoulder high to my 6'-3" frame.You can probably see some faint chalk lines in a checkerboard pattern on the side of the boiler. These are to facilitate the ultrasound inspection. See the next picture below for details.

By 1993, when the engine was sidelined to undergo its mandated 15-year inspection, the number of steam-experienced volunteers had begun to shrink. At the same time, world metal prices went through the roof. To make matters worse, a short time thereafter, the Cotton Belt changed hands and some of the shop facilities which afforded help to the 819 volunteer corps were relocated or shut down. Not a good thing when you have a 212-ton steam locomotive lying around in parts.

Ultrasound test grid on engine 819 boiler

The chalk grid on the side of the 819 boiler are to facilitate the ultrasound test of the boiler plate. The ultrasound test is completed by the square foot. If an anomaly is detected in a given square foot, that square foot must be divided into square inches and retested to isolate the anomaly. None of the square feet on the 819 boiler required the square inch trick. Not to shabby for a 67-year old boiler. Disregard the appearance, the old girl is in good condition.

Members of the Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society, caretakers for the 819, tell me that as far as the inspection went, it went well and the old girl passed with flying colors. After the inspection was nearly complete, their ultrasound machine went on the fritz, so in addition to everything else, they are waiting on that repair to materialize.

Joe Btfsplk not welcome here

Despite some daunting odds, don’t look for long faces in Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society, They know what they are up against and know it is up to them to do something about it. That being so, they never stop looking for sources of help and support to get the 819 back where it belongs … pulling cars of happy people over the railroads of America.

But wait, there’s more!

See all of this week’s Weekly Grist and Corndancer pictures, plus a few not published, in glorious, high resolution color. The collection includes a couple of T-Model Ford shots and a freshly painted diesel locomotive seen at the Arkansas Railroad Museum. Click here to go there.

Thanks for dropping by,

Joe Dempsey
Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind

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