Cotton Belt Engine 819


The St. Louis Southwestern #819 4-8-4 steam locomotive, completed in 1943, was the final locomotive constructed by the Cotton Belt's own staff of mechanical engineers, mechanical officers, foremen and workers in the company shops at Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It rolled into service on February 8, 1943, the last locomotive built in Arkansas.

Engine 819, a Northern-type oil burner, traveled more than 804,000 miles during its ten years of service. On July 19, 1955 Cotton Belt's President H. J. McKenzie donated Engine 819 to the City of Pine Bluff for the sum of $1. The engine had been in dead storage in Tyler. Locomotives 815 through 818 were scrapped between 1955 and 1957.

St. Louis Southwestern 4-8-8 Steam Engine #819St. Louis Southwestern (SSW) 4-8-8 Steam Engine #819

The problem of getting the locomotive moved to a display area in Oakland Park was solved when Cotton Belt agreed to lend materials for a temporary spur. Cotton Belt and Missouri Pacific employees contributed the labor in building the spur and moving the historic locomotive and its tender.

I have a strong connection with the move of #819. My uncle, Doyle S. Gibson, was a civil engineer working for the Cotton Belt at the time, and was involved in the design of the logistics involved in moving the locomotive. I visited him in Pine Bluff at the time, and recall the work he did in transitioning the engine to the park. Doyle was also involved in building the Pine Bluff Gravity Yard.

St. Louis Southwestern 4-8-8 Steam Engine #819St. Louis Southwestern (SSW) 4-8-8 Steam Engine #819

The engine remained on static display for nearly 30 years, but bore the brunt of neglect, rust, graffiti, and vandals who stole brass parts.

In December of 1983 a group of Cotton Belt employees, volunteers, rail fans and rail historical groups placed Engine 819 back on Cotton Belt rails for the first time in nearly three decades. The engine was moved from its former display back to the site of its construction 40 years earlier. Volunteers spent three years and 37,000 hours of time, and used $140,000 in donated materials, in restoring the engine. Bill Bailey, a civil engineer from Little Rock, presided over the restoration project.

On April 6, 1986, Engine 819 moved out of the Cotton Belt Route's yard at Pine Bluff marking the first time it had moved under its own power since 1953. For the next 15 years, the locomotive traveled on numerous excursions.

The mighty engine was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 18, 2003.

Newspaper article about the Cotton Belt Route Engine No. 819 restoration in Pine Bluff, Arkansas

The restored Cotton Belt Engine #819 visited Tyler, Texas in 1988 (see photo below). More than 1,000 Tyler residents greeted the historic steam engine. The arrival of this special nine-car train in Tyler coincided with ceremonies donating the Cotton Belt passenger depot to the City of Tyler.

For the first time in more than 33 years, the 4-8-4 Northern-style oil burner made the trip from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to Tyler, the two traditional capitals of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway.

The round-trip spanned 560 miles. Thousands of spectators lined the route, including scores of children who were given the opportunity to see part of railroad history roll down the tracks. Nearly 1,500 passengers rode the train at some point during the trip.

Restored Cotton Belt Engine #819 visits Tyler, Texas in 1988

Engine 819 made another trip to Tyler, arriving on October 16, 1993 for the Texas Rose Festival, pulling a tender and 14 passenger cars. It appeared in Little Rock in June 1986 for the Arkansas Sesquicentennial, and in St. Louis in 1990 for the National Rail Historical Society's annual convention.

Today, the mighty 819 is maintained at the Arkansas Railway Museum in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, by the Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society. The Museum is housed in what was once the Cotton Belt's locomotive fabrication building.

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