Cotton Belt 819 deserves to run again

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Cotton Belt 4-8-4 No. 819 — built 75 years ago, in 1943 — was still a youngster when it headed train 1-119 at Texarkana in 1951. Retired 2 years later, the handsome engine was preserved, and then restored for excursion service three decades later. R. S. Plummer
When the first of Northern Pacific’s Class A 4-8-4s rolled out of Alco’s Schenectady plant in 1926, a new standard for North American locomotives was set.

The “Northern,” as it was ultimately dubbed, not only produced unprecedented power at speed in both passenger and freight service, it turned out to be an ideal platform for all the other improvements bubbling up in steam technology, from feedwater heating and combustion chambers to disc drivers and roller bearings. With its long-legged symmetry, it was a regal machine. 

The dual-service 4-8-4 quickly became almost a trademark for a host of major railroads. What would the Norfolk & Western be without the streamlined J, or Southern Pacific without the Daylight engines, or Santa Fe without the 2900s, or New York Central without the Niagaras?

But the 4-8-4 could work for smaller carriers, too, and a number of them embraced the type, although in lesser numbers. The Western Maryland fielded a dozen, built late in the game by Baldwin in 1947. Western Pacific had six originally intended for SP. Even little (239 miles) Toledo, Peoria & Western had six 4-8-4s! They were the lightest ever built.

And then there was the St. Louis Southwestern, a.k.a. the Cotton Belt, the St. Louis-based bridge carrier that by the 1930s was ready to transcend its modest means and become a major player, especially with the success of its Blue Streak Merchandise fast freight introduced in 1931. The Cotton Belt boasted what, to me, were among the handsomest 4-8-4s ever built. Wait — make that among the handsomest engines of any wheel arrangement. 

What got me to thinking about this came a few days ago, when I had an accidental encounter with a fact: this year is the 75th anniversary of Cotton Belt 4-8-4 No. 819, built by the St. Louis Southwestern Railroad’s Pine Bluff (Ark.) Shops and placed in service in February 1943, and destined for greatness in the brief but spectacular surge of mainline steam in the late 1980s and early ’90s. That’s when I got to know her. 

The 819 spent years in a Pine Bluff, Ark., park before being returned to the city's former Cotton Belt shops for restoration. This photo is from October 1983, not long before it was moved from its display site. J. David Ingles
The 819 has an interesting history. Cotton Belt got in early on 4-8-4s, buying 10 from Baldwin in 1930. They had such an impact that the railroad built 10 more at Pine Bluff, in two groups, in 1937 and 1942–43. They were considered homebuilt engines, although Baldwin furnished the boilers. The latter group brought roller bearings and disc drivers to the class, and the earlier 4-8-4s were updated later. 

In his Guide to North American Steam Locomotives, author George Drury characterized the 800s as game changers. “Until the 1920s Cotton Belt was an also-ran, secondary railroad,” he wrote. “In 1929, investors that had acquired the road began to upgrade it, and new locomotives were at the top of the list.” The 4-8-4s had an immediate impact, Drury noted, moving 30 percent more freight and doing it faster than the stout 2-8-0s they supplanted. And with their jaunty boiler-tube pilots, centered headlights, and overhung bell, the 800s looked as close to the “Georgian” ideal as a 4-8-4 would get. 

When Cotton Belt ended steam in late 1953, it kept the 819 and in 1955 put it on display in a Pine Bluff park. On the occasion of the dedication, the Cotton Belt News house organ made the interment sound final: “Despite the fact that Pine Bluff is a railroad town steeped in steam engine tradition, it seems likely that future generations of her citizens might never see a steam locomotive in operation.”

Bill Bailey, one of the men who spearheaded the effort to bring Cotton Belt 819 back to life, polishes the engine's numberplate on June 12, 1986. John A. Craft
The magazine was wrong, of course. It hadn’t counted on the Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society, a group formed just for the purpose of lighting a fire in the 819 again. Key leaders in the group included Bill Bailey and Darrel Cason. In 1983, the group moved the 4-8-4 back into the Pine Bluff back shop and began a restoration that culminated in a big coming-out party on April 25, 1986, when the engine ran to Fordyce, Ark. 

Steam fans will recall how a restored 819 roared onto the scene and began reeling off a number of memorable trips, capped off by the engine’s appearance at the 1990 NRHS convention in St. Louis, where it joined N&W 1218, Union Pacific 844, and Frisco 1522 in a fairy tale congregation of mainline steam power at St. Louis Union Station. 

St. Louis is where I caught up with the 819, finagling a cab ride on part of the return trip to Pine Bluff, down along the Mississippi from Chester, Ill., to Scott City, Ark., including a ride over the majestic bridge at Thebes.

Our engineer was Jack Stone, a wizened old SSW veteran who’d seen it all and acted like it. He was cool as a cucumber, even as muffled flashes of flame exploded out from around the firedoor, common on oil burners. The diesel-era pilot crew seemed to be frightened by all the hot, noisy drama, but none of that fazed Stone. 

Meanwhile, the 819 worked just fine, loafing its way down the mainline with its light load and, thanks to some cheap oil in the bunker, creating a Vesuvius of thick, black smoke. Untold thousands of photographs were made that sun-splashed day as the 4-8-4 rolled down the Mississippi.  

The 819’s moment in the sun, sadly, was all too brief. The engine ran its last public trip in October 1993, to Tyler, Texas, and then was stored at Pine Bluff, where it has been the subject of intermittent work on the boiler over the last several years. Common to many steam groups, there have been challenges that appear to have hampered efforts to fire her up again. Today, the 819 is stored in the back shop where it was born, along with other equipment exhibited by today’s Arkansas Railroad Museum. The museum has a respectable collection of diesels, passenger cars, and other rolling stock.

There are plenty of engines out there I’d love to see run again, but close to the top of my list is the 819. Writer Fred Frailey captured the locomotive’s appeal in his book Blue Streak Merchandise, in which he described a lovely encounter with the engine.

“Even in the dim light of the cavernous brick structure, the dowager 819 positively glistened under what must have been a ton of gloss-black paint,” Fred wrote. “You could have eaten dinner off the gleaming driving rods, combed your hair from the reflection of the brass Cotton Belt insignia affixed above the pilot. The visitor stood for some minutes admiring this magnificent machine, which sat in repose, cool and aloof.”

Someday, let’s hope, they’ll light another oil fire in that big firebox. No longer would she be “cool and aloof.” We can always dream.

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