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The Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) grew out of an effort by the Cotton Belt Historical Society to preserve the last steam-powered locomotive built in Arkansas. It has since expanded to include other artifacts of Arkansas’s railroad heritage.
The Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society, Inc., was organized on October 18, 1983, primarily for the purpose of saving the Cotton Belt steam locomotive SSW 819, a 4-8-4 Northern-type steam locomotive that was the last steam-powered locomotive constructed in Arkansas. The locomotive had been retired and donated to the City of Pine Bluff in 1955, when machines of its type were being replaced by diesel-burning locomotives. It was placed in a city park, later called the Martin Luther King Jr. Park, where it was victimized by vandals and rust for thirty years. The bell, the belts, and other items were removed, and various messages were spray-painted on the 819.
Most of the volunteers who restored the locomotive were retired workers from the Cotton Belt Railroad, including Bill Bailey, Daniel Cash, Jake Comer, T. D. Davis, and Joe McCullough. The railroad company—then Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific—not only offered space for the renovation but also supplied tools and materials, while other expenses of the volunteer work were met by donations and by fund-raising sales of T-shirts, photographs of historic trains, and the like.
As the restoration work continued, the effort of restoring one locomotive gradually turned into the establishment of a railroad museum. An engine house was built on railroad property in 1995 to enhance the work. Other former railroad employees volunteering for the restoration work included Bill McCaskill, Bob McClanahan, Peter Smykla Jr., and Eddie Segars. The museum is located in the old Cotton Belt shops in a building constructed between 1882 and 1894 and is operated by the same group of former employees engaged in restoration work. The museum building and grounds are owned by the Union Pacific Railroad but are leased to the City of Pine Bluff.
Foremost among the exhibits at the museum is engine SSW 819, which began service on February 8, 1943, and was retired in 1955. In 1984, restoration began, and it was actively in service between 1986 and 1992. Other locomotive engines are on display, such as SSW 336, a 2-6-0 built in 1909, and UP 2907, which is on loan to the museum and is the only remaining 3,000 horsepower c-630 of ten purchased by Union Pacific. The museum also hosts various vintage cabooses, a tool car, a guard car, electric switchers, and a relief crane. The crane, which was a six-car train deployed to derailment sites, is the only remaining steam-powered relief crane in the world. The museum also is home to a collection of documents pertaining to the growth and development of the railroad industry in Arkansas. It features a full-scale replica of a railroad depot, and a gift shop is located on the premises.
The Arkansas Railroad Museum hosts the annual Railroadiana Show and Sale, which is usually scheduled for the first Saturday in April, unless Easter falls on that weekend. Four of the railroad cars, including locomotive 819, have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For additional information:
Massey, Richard. “Locomotive Renews Dream of Steam in PB.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 14, 2004, pp. 1B, 8B.
Reding, Anita. “PB Rail-Car Restorer Sees Handiwork Put on Historic Register.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 26, 2006, p. 5B.
Worthen, John. “PB Rail Fans Stokes on Restoring Engine.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 6, 2010, pp. 1B, 3B.
Elizabeth GainesArkansas Railroad Museum
Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 9/16/2015
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