By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
It’s hard not to be enamored by trains if you grew up where I did.
Pittsburg is crisscrossed by rail lines, as are many Southeast Kansas towns that were built on the backs of coal miners.
We know the stories of immigrants who pulled into town at Second Street and Broadway where the Europe Hotel used to stand. We watched as, a block to the west, the Watco transportation company grew by leaps and bounds to become one of the largest short-line rail operators in the nation.
My earliest memories include riding the pint-sized train at Kiddieland and going to Schlanger Park to see Engine 1023. Last September, I watched the latter get pulled away in an elaborate parade of specialized moving equipment, bound for its new home at Carona, about 15 minutes southwest.
Some weren’t thrilled with that turn of events, but I’m happy that the historic engine is getting a new life there. Vandals had all but stripped it of the pieces and parts that made it an engine. Gone was its 1906 bell, its whistle. The headlights were broken, the inside trashed.
But wherever there is bad, there is good. Members of the Heart of the Heartlands club, a group of railroad enthusiasts from across the nation, have gone to great lengths to begin the restoration and preservation of the engine. I visited with one, Larry Spahn, on Friday.
He told me that, as is so often the case in the Midwest, individuals and businesses have contributed time, talent and equipment to get the job done.
Ed Mayberry, a local Kansas City Southern retiree, donated a reflector. Ron Chamberland, a member from near Wichita, donated a replica whistle. Jeff Kooney, a member from Texas, restored the headlights.
Pittsburg craftsmen Jim VanBecelaere, Shawn Brown of Sam Brown Sheet Metal and Francis DeMott of Red Ball Patterns have spent quite a bit of time fabricating parts.
Freddy VanBecelaere has done dirt work at the new site and found salvage items to replace missing parts. Gary Burton Welding of Opolis, Pittsburg electrician Brent Linder and Jerry Messer’s Crane & Salvage Service of rural Cherokee County have contributed their skills.
Cherryvale sandblaster Chris Helt is preparing to begin work on the exterior any day now.
My family can’t wait to see the finished product and take another peek inside the museum complex on the grounds. It’s a fun outing any time of year.
We’ll also be headed back to the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin to see another of our favorite trains that had disappeared for a while.
Consisting of an engine, a passenger car and a caboose, it was fashioned out of wood by master carpenter Bob Hurt, of rural Pittsburg, in 2005. He lent it to the Pittsburg community, in a sense, by installing it between Immigrant Park and Pritchett Pavilion at Second Street and Broadway.
Much to the despair of my sons, vandals went to work on it like they did Engine 1023, so it had to be removed and put in storage. But Watco restored it, and a few weeks ago, crews wrapped up work on a beautiful pavilion and concrete pad at the Miners Hall Museum and installed the train just before the opening of the Smithsonian Institution exhibit.
Now that train, too, will be preserved for years of enjoyment by visitors young and old. All aboard!
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