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



Trolley, train, and truck

The store at Lester Arkansas

Click on the picture to see What's Left at Lester. It's an eye full.

October 23, 2011

Unfortunately this week, the schedule weevils infected my routine and subsequently, my heart-felt desires to photograph a new subject and write a new story were thwarted. As a well experienced, card-carrying human being, I have learned that these things happen and that one should take them in stride while licking ones chops in anticipation of the next adventure.

That being said, I am sending you this week to tiny Lester, Arkansas, a place I first visited in January of 2009. What Lester lacks in size, it more than makes up for in pure curiosity in its remaining commercial structure, the old “store.” Take a look at “What’s left at Lester.” While you are clicking be sure and see (as in “don’t miss”) the original Lester pictures and story on the January 25, 2009 Corndancer Photo of the Week page.

Restored Fort Smith Trolley

This trolley at the Fort Smith Trolley Museum is completely cosmetically restored. The restorers are now working on some final mechanical and electrical details to make the car fully operational.

 While visiting Fort Smith, Arkansas, the place of my birth and upbringing until my 15th year, during a high-school reunion, I stumbled across the Fort Smith Trolley Museum and discovered a old trolley nearly restored to operational condition. As you can see, the restoration job is pristine as would be expected when the labor is provided by dedicated volunteers. The museum people were very congenial and informative. You can follow the trolley museum on Facebook.

James E. Reynolds monument in Oak Cemetery Fort Smith AR

Click on the picture to see this unique monument

Actually, the trolley was my second shoot of the morning. The first was at Oak Cemetery in Fort Smith, where I hooked up with some high school classmates to shoot a unique and remarkable monument.

At the time, the appearance of the grave was reason enough to make a special trip to shoot it. Turns out, there was a story behind the artistry in the cemetery. Go to the Photo of the Week page at Corndancer dot-com to to see the monument and get in on an interesting story. We’ll wait here for you.

Meanwhile, back at the trolley museum, the trolley crew told me about the restored trolley. Museum officials found the trolley rotting in a field west of Hot Springs, Arkansas. The last place of the trolley’s active service was in Hot Springs. They showed me a picture of the trolley as they found it. The nicest thing you can say about the trolley as they found it was “pitiful.” What the Fort Smith volunteers have done with the trolley is miraculous. They are performing similar miracles on another trolley in the same shop, this one, an open trolley from Vera Cruz, Mexico.

Frisco steam locomotive 4130

Frisco steam locomotive 4003 on static display at the Fort Smith trolley museum.

 The folks at the trolley museum show an interest in more than trolleys. They have a nice collection of rail equipment including cabooses, a dining car, and a whopper of a steam locomotive, the 4003 from the former Frisco Railroad. As I recall, back in the day, Fort Smith was served by the Frisco and the Kansas City Southern railroads and each railroad had their own depots.

An environmental picture

Abandoned native stone building on I-40

The environment for this old abandoned native stone structure is I-40, just south of Clarksville, Arkansas. Its job is to watch traffic go by.

One of my deals as a photographer is to show the subject in its environment which generally means that closeups are not a dominant force in my portfolio. I like to show some surroundings. Having driven by this old building on I-40 south of Clarksville AR about a jillion times without noticing it, I was delighted to finally notice it on this trip — while being ashamed of myself for not noticing it earlier. Then it occurred to me that I should probably include interstate traffic if I was to hold to my thing with a bit of environment in the shot. It took about a 100 shots or so to catch a truck in just the right place, but was worth the wait. In the immortal words of Hank Snow, the truck was “movin’ on.” I set the shutter speed high.

Old barn on US Highway 64

This old barn on US 64 has seen better days and is now a detritus dump.

 On the trip to Fort Smith, I was running ahead of schedule, so I dropped off the interstate and traveled north on US Highway 64, the artery which was replaced as the main east-west thoroughfare by I-40. I figured I would spy an old barn or two and was not disappointed. The remnants of a lightning rod system are dangling from the peak of the roof. From all appearances the last use of the barn was typical of many in their last useful days — a repository for the the stuff you don’t want to throw away (but probably should), but can’t find anywhere else to dump it. And life goes on.

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

A choo-choo in the park

Not every place has one

Old locomotive Warren AR

Engine 123 came to the Warren, Arkansas city park by way of Mexico, some corporate generosity, and a lot of local ingenuity and sweat equity.

Engine 123 of the Southern Lumber Company in Bradley County, Arkansas  started life as Engine 11 for the Morelia & Tacambaro Railway Co. of Guanajunto, Mexico. The 112 ton locomotive was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Eddystone, Pennsylvania in 1907.

From Mexico to Warren

We’re not certain exactly when or what circumstances precipitated the sale and transfer of the locomotive from Mexico to Bradley County, and further, we have found no one more enlightened on the subject than we are. We are certain that this train story started on the Photo of the Week page at Corndancer dot Com, where you will find still yet more pictures and another story of an old locomotive. Click here to go there and see the start of this treatise.

Move and restore

By 1955, the 123 had outlived its usefulness for the Southern Lumber Company. Company officials and the newly formed Kiwanis Club of Warren got their mutual acts together and hatched up a plan to save and restore the engine, which by that time had seen better days. The company agreed to move the locomotive to the Warren City Park where Kiwanians would be responsible for restoration of the iron beast. The company laid a temporary track and huge bulldozers pushed it to the park. It’s been there ever since and gives evidence that is well appreciated.

locomotive drive wheels

The steam cylinders which sent power to these massive 54" wheels are 18 inches in diameter with a 24 inch stroke. The tractive power was 18,288. Don't ask me what that means.

Kid magnet

There were a number of children (with attending parents) playing in the park when I arrived and started to shoot the old engine, just a few were playing on the old engine. Once I began to shoot, a few more gravitated to the iron horse, then a few more, you get the drift. When I climbed in the cab to get the shots below, it became a kid attack. Let me pause to say, this is not a bad thing. Curious kids crawling around on an old locomotive which was put there for, well, kids to crawl around on − it’s natural and expected behavior.

Engine 123 cab interior

Imagine yourself as an engineer or fireman in these spartan conditions. This is not the actual configuration and most of the controls are long gone, however, the space is about the same. Just a few seconds before I fired this series of shots, a platoon of kids was swarming in the close confines of the cab. Thank goodness for attention span swings,

Of course a crowd of squirming kids is the antithesis of circumstances conducive to tripod photography. Fortunately, there is the attention span syndrome. These kids manifested the behavior magnificently, so I got several two minute shooting breaks between kid attacks. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing.

An encouraging observation

I noticed as the kid crowd grew, so did the proximity of the parents to the engine. I was a stranger and their kids were close by. They (the parents) were doing what they were supposed to do under those circumstances. Even though I was viewed with some suspicion, it was encouraging to see this display of parental responsibility, There is something to be said for small town America.

Engineer's view

Get a load of the engineer's view as the train would have sped on its way. Under the best of circumstances, there would not have been a National Guard Armory across the tracks.

Great track record

Engine 123 is a good example of how individuals can make a difference. Think about it. Here’s a 104 year old locomotive which has provided fun and entertainment for families for more than a half-century − all because somebody had an idea. That somebody recruited some friends and put legs on the idea. Now thousands have benefited, and since the engine is about as portable as the Rock of Gibraltar, there’s a high probability that the trend will continue. How refreshing.

Parting shot


An armadillo grazes around on a levee for ants or other treats on an unusually balmy February afternoon last week. The well-acclimated critter was nice enough to hold the pose.

When I told a friend an armadillo was making a cameo appearance on Weekly Grist this week, she allowed as how she formerly harbored admiration for the cute little things with the funny ears. Then a few of the varmints rooted through and decimated her pansies. They, the armadillos, immediately fell from grace in that household. Since I have no pansies or other vaunted vegetation, I harbor no such enmity for this benign creature. In fact, every time I see one, I recall Jerry Jeff Walker mentioning them favorably as he warbles Gary P. Nunn’s classic London Homesick Blues. Here’s a version with Gary P. explaining how the song came to be. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it,

See high-res pictures of all this week’s shots

Click here to see a gallery of this weeks pictures in a great looking format, not all all of which made it to Weekly Grist or Corndancer.

Thanks for dropping by,

Joe Dempsey,
Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind

A bear, a monkey, and a locomotive

bear in pond at Audubon Park Zoo

It ain’t the slime from Hades that ate Brooklyn surrounding the bear. It’s common duckweed.

This critter compendium started on the photo of the week page at Corndancer dot com with a gray fox and some ‘gators. To get in on the start of the festivities and see the critters, click here. We’ll wait while you look.

The black bear is swimming in the pond of the swamp area at Audubon Park, otherwise known as the New Orleans Zoo. Mind you, this shot was made with film around the mid nineties, so the bear and the pond are not the same, if at all.

When you first see the image, you say, “  … yuk, gah-rohss, eeetch!$#@! look at the bear in the slime. The green stuff is neither algae nor slime; it is duckweed, a prolific, emerald green aquatic plant that will cover a pond quickly. What appear to be green freckles on the bear’s muzzle are duckweed leaves.  It is an inordinately warm day in mid-April and brother bear has opted for a dip to cool the savage beast, duckweed notwithstanding.

primate in tree at Audubon Park Zoo

Now where in the $#@!!!^%* did I leave that lottery ticket?

Not far away, perched high above the ground is a monkey, the genre of which escapes me. He looks like he is wearing a roaring twenties raccoon coat. One thing I do know, it appears that his left ear is itching because he is vigorously scratching in that direction.  He looks like he has just lost his lottery ticket. Folks, these critters are why we go and gladly pay to get it. Go forth, learn and enjoy.

All steamed up

Cotton Belt Engine 819

Cotton Belt Engine 819, built, retired, and restored in Pine Bluff, Arkansas

What, you say, do monkeys, bears, and locomotives have in common? At first blush, nothing. Howsomever, these three do. They share a residence in my film image archives. This week, in-lieu of plying the highways and byways for Grist matter, I groveled through the archives. From a technical standpoint,  for those of you interested in photography, this image took a bit of unconventional chicanery. I knew I would not get to see the engine until the afternoon of that day, which, unfortunately meant the business end, which you see above, would be in the shadows. So I took a couple of 600 watt studio strobes and about a 175′ of extension cord to the rail yards and blasted 819 with a sterilizing dose of strobe to get the shot. I got some really weird stares and a couple of mild electrical shocks since steam engines cast off water, but, in the end, I got the shot and that was what counted. The images on this post are all in the 14-15 year old range, shot on Fujichrome 100.

The 819 was built in the Cotton Belt Shops at Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1943. The locomotive was in regular service on the St. Louis and Southwestern Railroad, more popularly known in theses environs as the Cotton Belt Line, until 1955 when it was retired. The mighty locomotive was placed on permanent display in a city park in Pine Bluff where it remained until December 1, 1983 when a group of enthusiasts put the engine back on rails, returned it to the shops where it originated and meticulously restored it to the last minute detail. There is much more to this story than this synopsis, most of which you can find here. The 819 is currently housed in the Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

May 6, 2012 update. The 8i9 is now disassembled and “on hold.” See a Corndancer article and a companion Weekly Grist article from 2010 which give some explanation of the 819 dilemma.

Where is this building (or where was it)?

auto auction barn

This old build is (or was) in plain sight, visible for a long way in either direction on the highway where it was located. Where, was that, within 100 miles?

Who will be the first to tell me where this building is, within a hundred miles, or so, a generous latitude of locations? I have passed this old structure a number of times and finally photographed it about 15 years ago. It’s been seven years since I have been past the building, so I am not certain that it is still standing. Who knows, it could have been razed or simply collapsed. For those who want to participate, email or post a comment below? Hint: It is west of where I live. I will reveal the answer (within a 100 miles or so) next week, it not sooner.

Thanks for dropping by,

Joe Dempsey
Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind

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