Fort Smith weighs buy­ing elec­tric train

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - DAVE HUGHES

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

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette

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.

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