Fort Smith weighs buying electric train
FORT SMITH — City officials say they believe they can come up with a solution to continue giving popular small-train rides at Creekmore Park to the young and young at heart.
City directors are scheduled July 11 to consider spending about $56,000 to buy an electric train from a California company that would be a replica of a steam-powered locomotive that was purchased in 1949 and until last year was used to give rides at the city park.
The city received three bids for the new train, Parks Department Director Doug Reinert said. The lowest, at $55,800, came from Western Train Co. of Temecula, Calif.
The other two bids came from Action Machine Inc. of Fort Smith, at $83,000, and from Godshall Custom Machining from Shermans Dale, Pa., at $85,000.
The money for the train would come from a parks reserve fund used exclusively for parks expenses, Reinert said.
Reinert wrote to city directors that Western Train could fabricate a replica of the Creekmore steam train with a functioning steam mechanism and any other feature the city wanted, and it could be built and delivered in 60-90 days.
The train would be battery-powered, could run all day and could carry a large number of passengers, Reinert said.
Larry Newman, 70, said he remembers riding on the Creekmore Park steam train, called the Kansas City Southern 999, as a boy in the 1950s. His children rode it when they were growing up, and now his grandchildren ride a diesel-powered train at the park on a regular basis.
“The train will bring the kid out in everybody,” he said.
The train, which used to run every day during the summer, underwent major repairs in 1988, according to information furnished by Reinert. It took more than a year to finish the repairs because replacement parts had to be manufactured and were expensive.
When the train was put back in service, it shared time with the diesel-powered engine, the Creekmore Express, which the city acquired in the 1980s.
The steam train’s condition has deteriorated, and the train hasn’t run since June 29, 2016. The Creekmore Express diesel engine is currently the only train that runs a quarter-mile route at Creekmore Park.
City directors appeared to be leaning toward buying the electric train and using it as the primary train, having the diesel train as a backup and reserving the steam train, if it’s restored, for special occasions.
The city directors seemed reluctant to retire the steam train because of its long history in the city and the pleasant memories it has created over the years.
“When I was a kid, we would come up to Creekmore Park from Charleston and ride the train,” City Director Tracy Pennartz said at last week’s
meeting. “It was a big deal.”
John Mankin of Checotah, Okla., formerly of Fort Smith, said that when he was a child, he used to hound his grandfather about taking him to Creekmore Park to ride the train.
“On a nice day, you could hear that whistle all over Park Hill,” he said.
Reinert said 37,000 passengers a year ride the train. The track is a quarter-mile long, and a ride is two laps. The three cars the diesel locomotive pulls can carry up to 30 people.
He said a ride costs 25 cents, but no one is turned away for not having the fare.
Newman, who is one of two drivers of the Creekmore Express, said between 400 and 500 people a day have been riding the train since he started the job three weeks ago.
Newman, a retired city electrical inspector, said he hesitates to call it a job because he enjoys driving the
train so much. He said the train is easy to drive, and his biggest challenge is keeping children from hanging their feet off the car or placing sticks across the track.
As the train driver, “Out there, you are the good guy all the time,” he said.
Mankin said he plans to propose to city directors at the July 11 meeting that he form a nonprofit organization that would take over the trains at Creekmore Park. He said the nonprofit group would raise the money to repair the steam train, take over diagnosing its problems and arrange for repairs to be made.
The organization would be in charge of operating, maintaining and repairing all the trains at Creekmore Park, he said, similar to operating a concession.
Ivy Owen, executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, also was interested in the steam train. He said if city officials want to get rid of the train, he wants to acquire, repair and operate it in Chaffee Crossing’s historic district.
He also said he would offer Chaffee Crossing’s maintenance shop to help assess the repair needs or assist with repairs if the work is done locally.
The cost of restoring the train is unknown. Reinert told city directors estimates of restoring the train have ranged from less than $20,000 to $100,000. He said there is no way of knowing how much it will cost until the train is taken apart and examined.
“The train will bring the kid out in everybody.”
— Larry Newman, Fort Smith resident
Fort Smith officials are considering whether it will be feasible to renovate a steam-powered locomotive that has been giving rides at Creekmore Park for more than 65 years.