Why Louisiana & Arkansas 503 deserves to be saved

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, February 26, 2018

Former Louisiana & Arkansas 4-6-0 No. 503, by now property of the Louisiana Midland, departs Minden, La., with a freight train on July 17, 1948. Seventy years later, she's the subject of a valiant preservation effort. C. W. Whitbeck
One fine day in April 1920, a crew at Baldwin’s plant in Philadelphia pulled a burly but entirely ordinary 4-6-0 out into the sunlight for its first photograph. The Ten-Wheeler was still hanging on as a standard wheel arrangement in those days, and lord knows how many hundreds of them BLW and its competitors would turn out that year.

So the craftsmen at Baldwin might be forgiven if they’d considered the completion of Louisiana & Arkansas No. 503 to be no big deal.

Ah, but how wrong they were. That’s because, nearly a century later, rusting away in a forgotten corner of a park in Port Arthur, Tex., that tough little oil-burner would become the darling of something called social media. Once its newfound fans were done, the 503 would be the prospective recipient of tens of thousands of dollars, enough, apparently, to save her from the scrapper’s torch.

That’s the happy news from steam preservationists Jason Sobczynski and Nick Hovey and their team, who over the past couple of weeks used the GoFundMe website to raise sufficient money to prevent the engine from being scrapped.

As this is written, details about what happens next with the 503 are pending, but the important thing is that the financial goal was reached. And deservedly so. Kudos go to the hundreds of enlightened contributors who made contributions. As for the cranks who bad-mouthed the campaign — either because they wanted to see money go elsewhere or because, well, “what’s just another steam engine?” — I assert that in 2018 every steam locomotive deserves to be saved. Every engine has a story to tell.

L&A 'Russian Decapod' 104 pulls out of Shreveport with a westbound freight in August 1934. H. K. Vollrath coll.
Consider the tale of L&A 503. The Louisiana & Arkansas had modest beginnings, but it ended up being a strategic puzzle piece for Kansas City Southern. William Buchanan, a prominent Arkansas lumberman, and some associates formed the L&A in 1898 with the goal of simply consolidating logging lines. The original L&A linked Hope, Ark., with Shreveport.

A key early investor, Harvey Couch, in 1928 led a group to acquire the L&A and extend it to New Orleans via acquisition of Louisiana Railway & Navigation, which ran from Shreveport to the Crescent City via Baton Rouge. Couch and his associates bought KCS in 1939 and then into it folded the L&A.

The pre-KCS L&A was not a major railroad, but it had its merits, notably a pair of nifty named passenger trains inaugurated in 1928. The Shreveporter ran between Hope and its namesake city and the Hustler from Shreveport to New Orleans. In their heyday, passenger engines carried the names of the trains on plaques atop their smokeboxes, a status presumably conferred upon the 503.

Figuratively speaking, both trains were progenitors of a much more famous train, the Southern Belle, which KCS launched as a Kansas City–New Orleans overnight train in 1940. The Belle went on to become a notable streamliner in the 1950s and ’60s.

The front cover (right) of an L&A brochure touted the road's freight service, while the back cover (left) blurbed the Shreveport and Hustler passenger trains. Classic Trains coll.
In the steam era, the old L&A roster was a mixed bag of Ten-Wheelers, Consolidations, and 2-8-2s, with a group of seven Russian Decapod 2-10-0s thrown in via consolidation with LR&N. The line also fielded three Pacifics, one acquired from FEC and two from KCS.

And that leads us to the engine of the hour, No. 503. As one of a dozen D-25 4-6-0s built for the L&A between 1913 and 1920, it was a member of the largest class of engines on the railroad. They weighed in at 169 tons and boasted 57-inch drivers, so they were large as Ten-Wheelers go, certainly capable of doing anything the L&A might require.

But like a lot of engines designed before World War I, the 503 ended up getting passed down from railroad to railroad under the pressure of changing economics and technology. To trace the 503’s journey, I consulted J. David Conrad’s indispensable The Steam Locomotive Directory of North America, Vol. II, published in 1987. Conrad traces the 503’s sale in the mid-1940s to the Louisiana Midland, a new railroad formed to keep an old L&A branch alive. The 4-6-0 worked there only three years before it was sold again, this time to the South Shore Railway, a gravel pit operation at Jackson, La., near Baton Rouge, run by the Midland’s owners.

A bit of the drama of those years on the LM is captured nicely in the accompanying photograph by one of the South’s master lensmen, C. W. Witbeck, showing the 503 bounding out of Minden, La., in July 1948. The trainmen look like they’re hanging on for dear life as the hogger hooks up the big 4-6-0 on a long train of mixed freight.

L&A Ten-Wheeler 393 cuts a dashing figure at an unknown location on an unknown date. The engine carries a 'Hustler' nameboard, but this appears to be a special train. A. E. Brown
The 503 reached what everyone thought would be its final resting place in 1957, after the 4-6-0 made its way into Kansas City Southern’s hands. As the story goes, the city of Port Arthur wanted a display engine representing KCS, and since all of the railroad’s steam locomotives had been scrapped, an engine from a KCS predecessor road would do just fine. (A sister to 503, former L&A No. 509, is displayed in Cookeville, Tenn., after a similarly circuitous journey.)

So that’s where the 503 would sit for more than a half-century, rusting away in the sea air in Port Arthur’s Bryan Park at the corner of Augusta Avenue and Gulfway Drive. That is, until Sobczynski and Hovey and their friends showed up.

The engine deserves all the love it’s currently getting. No steam locomotive that survives in 2018 should ever be subject to an acetylene torch, not at this late date — even a machine as seemingly run of the mill as the 503.

Truth is, there was nothing about the 503 that was run of the mill. Not to the men who ran the engine up and down the L&A, or who changed its flues and trued its wheels in the Minden shops, not to mention the passengers who felt its tug as they departed Tunica or Bijou on the Hustler, or heard its whistle in the night.

More than just an inert contraption of metal, the 503 remains an icon of their way of life. And that’s worth saving!


To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.


Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!


Get the Classic Trains twice-monthly newsletter