CARONA, Kan. —
The final coat of shiny black Imron paint is dry.
Windows and gauges are reattached.
White lettering spells out “1023” and “K.C.S.”
And for the first time in decades, a bell on top of the last known Kansas City Southern steam engine can ring out with the pull of a rope from the fireman’s seat in the cab.
Larry Spahn, president of the Heart of the Heartlands Railroad Club, tried it out Friday morning.
“Sounds good,” he said as the sound competed with cicadas along the rural Cherokee County road. “It was a long time coming.”
Spahn was referring not just to the bell, but to the complete overhaul the steam engine and the tender box have undergone in the last year at the Carona Depot and Museum Complex.
“Just sitting here like this,” Spahn said, leaning out of the window after ringing the bell, “it’s like playing with a big toy. But it was a lot of hot, hard, dirty work for the fellas who did it. Now maybe they won’t be forgotten.”
Representative of a bygone era, the engine’s restoration also was important, he said, because it will stand as a testament to the development of the nation.
“The U.S. is held together with steel rails and wire,” Spahn said. “We’re trying to preserve the past for the future.”
The Heartlands group took on the massive project — literally, as the engine and tender weigh a combined 150 tons — last fall. Built in the other Pittsburgh — the one with an “h” — in 1906, the engine and tender had once been used in the Pittsburg (Kan.) KCS rail yard but had been on display at Schlanger Park since 1956 when put out of service.
“'Bus' Johnson, the superintendent of machinery at KCS, convinced the city to take it back then,” Spahn recalled. “It was the last one.”
For generations, it stood sentry at the bottom of the Fourth Street Overpass, where legions of youth grew up sledding each winter and visitors posed for photographs. But it also fell prey to vandals and the weather.
During its lifetime in use, the engine and tender, which was used in Kansas City before coming to the Pittsburg rail yards, a “whole fleet of people took care of it,” Spahn said.
“When it rolled into the shop after being out, they’d have to get it ready for the next day,” he said. “It was quite an operation.”
By the time the decision was made to relocate it and begin restoration, there wasn’t a window pane left in it, the bell and whistle had been stolen, the interior of the cab was overrun by birds’ nests and droppings, and it was sinking into the ground.
There was controversy among many Pittsburg residents over moving the engine from its landmark location. But there also were supporters.
Johnson’s daughter, Kaye Lynn Webb, would grow up to marry Dick Webb, and together they built Watco Transportation. Based in Pittsburg, it is now one of the largest short-line railway companies in the world and has supported the Heartlands club’s efforts financially and through donations of equipment.
Others, too, got involved in the project. Among them: Jim VanBecelaere, a local machinist who rode the engine into Schlanger Park when it was moved there, agreed to donate his time in fabricating many of the missing parts and retooling those in need of repair.
Last September, Tilton & Sons House Movers from Carthage, Mo., used a specially built trailer for the arduous task of getting the engine from Point A to Point B, which included busy roads, overhead traffic lights and numerous turns.
This summer, Helt Construction Services in Cherryvale, used nine tons of sand to blast off the rust and remaining paint, then applied 26 gallons of primer and 26 gallons of Imron paint, which Spahn said should last 50 years.
“It wouldn’t have been this nice since the day it left the shop in 1906,” Spahn said.
Next week, the Heartlands club will help in the construction of a shelter over the engine and tender to fend off the elements. Four, 18-foot posts will be placed into the ground on either side and a gabled roof built over it.
A set of wooden stairs used at a FEMA trailer in Joplin was obtained by the club to help make the cab of the engine accessible to visitors.
Soon, Spahn said, the gravel around the engine and tender will be smoothed and a top layer of polished rock will be added for a manicured look. A plaque is ready to be installed nearby in honor of 'Bus' Johnson and the KCS.
“When it was first moved into the park, it was supposed to be the catalyst for a museum. The Joplin-Pittsburg trolley system donated a section car. Missouri Pacific Railroad donated that cupler. There was a whistle, a bell,” Spahn said. “For whatever reason, it didn’t ever happen.
“I’m just glad everything worked as well as it did. We had a lot of support from the community, from individuals and from businesses. It should be here a long time for people to enjoy.”
This weekend will be the last photo opportunity for those to want to capture pure images of the engine and tender before the posts are set and the roof is installed over it. The museum complex, which is run by volunteers, will be open today from noon until “the last person leaves,” Spahn said, and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Heart of the Heartlands members will be on hand to point out features of the train, talk about the restoration and allow visitors to look inside the cab. Admission is free.
CARONA, Kan. —
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