PB mural to be torn down after fire

Loss of Union Pacific work ‘heartbreaking,’ official says

Posted: August 4, 2014 at 3:10 a.m.

Arkansas Democrat Gazette/JOHN WORTHEN - 08/01/2014 - Efforts to save the Engine 819 Cotton Belt mural that has been on the side of the former Young's Cleaners building for decades have failed. The vacant structure was torched by arsonists several months ago and will soon be brought down.

PINE BLUFF -- One of Pine Bluff's most popular historical murals is set to be torn down after arsonists torched the building on which it's painted.

Fire gutted the vacant Young's Cleaners building at 917 Main St. in May, but flames spared the mural of the Cotton Belt 819 steam locomotive. No injuries were reported in the fire, and no arrests have been made.

The property owners deeded the site to the city after the fire.

In the months since the blaze, many people have tried to find ways to save the mural -- which also depicts another, smaller steam engine and the Pine Bluff Cotton Belt shop roundhouse -- but city officials said money just isn't available.

Cost estimates to save the mural wall and reinforce it with steel beams range from $30,000 and $50,000. In a report, Street Department Director Rick Rhoden said the wall could still be dangerous, even if it's reinforced.

Union Pacific paid about $30,000 to create the artwork in 1998 as a gift to the city, and it's been one of the most popular of Pine Bluff's 12 downtown murals, said Joy Blankenship, director of Pine Bluff Downtown Development.

"It's just heartbreaking," Blankenship said of losing the mural. "We are in the process of restoring some of the downtown murals, and losing this one is just tragic. There were many people who traveled to the Arkansas Railroad Museum here who would come downtown to see the mural. It is a big attraction for train enthusiasts."

Debris removal continues at the site, but city officials said they weren't sure what day the mural wall would be taken down. The 819 engine and the Cotton Belt Railroad have a rich history in Pine Bluff, making the mural that much more sentimental to many in the city.

In 1943, the 819 was the last of 10 locomotives built by the St. Louis Southwestern Railway Co. -- more commonly known as the Cotton Belt because its rails stretched through prime cotton land -- at its Pine Bluff machine shop.

St. Louis Southwestern fell under the auspices of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which was purchased by Union Pacific in the 1990s. Union Pacific still operates a large rail yard in Pine Bluff.

The old Cotton Belt shop on Port Road just northwest of downtown now houses the Arkansas Railroad Museum, where 819 sits in disrepair just a few yards from where it was originally assembled in 1942.

About $600,000 is needed to restore the engine, museum officials said.

A Class L1 4-8-4, the 819 is one of the largest steam locomotives ever built. It hauled freight for more than 10 years, but like other steam locomotives, it eventually was replaced by a more efficient diesel engine.

In 1955, the Cotton Belt donated the 819, then in dead storage in Tyler, Texas, to Pine Bluff for $1.

Other 4-8-4 steam engines operated by the Cotton Belt, including the 10 built in Pine Bluff, have all been scrapped, making the 819 a rarity.

By spring 1986, the Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society had fully restored the 819, which completed 13 trips over seven years. The restoration cost about $140,000 and took 37,000 hours.

After that, 819 was once again mothballed because maintenance costs were too much for the Arkansas Railroad Museum to bear.

The downtown mural depicts the 819 in its heyday, chugging down the tracks billowing steam and black coal smoke. On Friday afternoon, Bill McCaskill, 73, remembered those days as he sat down for a break at the museum, where he works as a volunteer.

He said the mural has always been special to him.

"It's a way to see the old engine and remember the good old days," said McCaskill, who worked as a conductor on the trips the newly restored 819 took in the 1980s. "But I knew as soon as I heard that building burned that the mural was gone. There just isn't money anywhere around here to save it."

Late last week, Allison Dalrymple stopped by the mural to take one last set of photographs. She said she remembers taking her children to see the old engine when it roared back to life in the 1980s.

Losing the mural is a tragedy, she said.

"It's just one more piece of Pine Bluff history that will be gone forever," Dalrymple said. "History is about all Pine Bluff has these days, and now it seems much if that is disappearing."

State Desk on 08/04/2014