What is it about old trains that inspires such interest and devotion? The fans of Engine 819 can explain.
But first, let’s get the specs out of the way. Officially known as St. Louis Southwestern No. 819, Engine 819 is a 4-8-4 "Northern" type steam locomotive. On Monday February 8, 1943, Engine 819, was placed in active service. It 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. Engine 819 cost $143,607 to build and it was to be the last locomotive produced in Arkansas.
Engine 819 got around. It traveled more than 804,000 miles during its 10½ years of service, before being forced aside by the more modern diesel locomotives. On July 19, 1955 Cotton Belt's President H. J. McKenzie presented retired Engine 819 to the City of Pine Bluff to show the Cotton Belt's gratitude for the part the city had played in their steam locomotive operations. McKenzie commented that this model engine is generally conceded to be one of the best designed and most attractive of its type ever built. He recalled how the engine had been built by local craftsmen, who were very proud of them and he hoped that the people of Pine Bluff would be equally proud to display it in their public park.
However, just a few short years after the locomotive was moved, it soon fell into disrepair. Thus, began a cycle of restoration attempts followed by gradual deterioration and more restoration attempts.
On December 1, 1983, between 50 and 100 Cotton Belt employees, most of them volunteers and members of the newly formed Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society, placed Engine 819 back on Cotton Belt rails for the first time in nearly three decades and transported the engine 3 1⁄2 miles from the park back to the site of its manufacture 40 years earlier. The goal was to restore the engine in a bold project to show Arkansans what past gigantic locomotives looked like.
In April 1986, 35,000 man-hours later, the project was complete. They fired up Engine 819 and moved it out of the Cotton Belt Route's yard at Pine Bluff marking the first time it had moved under its own power since 1953.
Later that summer, film crews came to Pine Bluff for the production of the movie End of the Line. Engine 819 played a minor role along with 35 Pine Bluff residents turned actors, many of them members of the Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society. Arkansas-born actress Mary Steenburgen was the film's executive producer, who worked hard to be able to use the newly restored locomotive for the movie.
Today, Engine 819 is partially disassembled for its mandated 15-year Federal Railroad Administration inspection. A sudden increase in material costs and various emergency repairs needed at the Arkansas Railroad Museum over the years have exhausted funds that were earmarked for the inspection project. The locomotive now sits idle inside the museum, awaiting its return to future travels. When it’s ready, we’ll be there. We hope you will be, too.