Savannah museum offers space for historic Macon locomotive

Hartwell owner insists restoration plan unchanged

jgaines@macon.comJanuary 5, 2013 

Though the company which promised to get Steam Locomotive 509 back on the rails has been silent for several months, there are others interested in the historic engine that’s been on display in Macon’s Central City Park since 1956.

One of those offers prompted the most recent word from Hartwell Railroad Co. of Bowersville in north Georgia.

Scott Smith, president and CEO of the Coastal Heritage Society, sent a letter Oct. 1 to Macon Mayor Robert Reichert saying that his group, which manages the Georgia State Railroad Museum in Savannah, had been watching the flagging progress of the engine’s restoration.

“First and foremost, we would like to emphasize that (the Coastal Heritage Society) is in support of Hartwell’s plan for locomotive No. 509; we would like to see No. 509 restored to service as planned,” Smith wrote. But based on the museum’s own experience with rebuilding locomotives, he thought Hartwell was greatly underestimating the cost of restoration and ongoing maintenance.

Macon agreed in May 2011 to lease the engine and attached coal car to Hartwell for 30 years at $1 per year. In exchange, the company offered to rebuild the locomotive as an excursion train for use mostly on its north Georgia lines and offer discounted trips to Macon residents at least twice a year.

At that time, Hartwell representative Jason Sobczynski said restoration could cost up to $450,000. Hartwell projected perhaps a year of work before the engine was running again.

But if Hartwell is unable to restore it, Smith offered to house the engine in a roundhouse bay in Savannah, “perpetually protected and on display for the visitors to the Georgia State Railroad Museum.” Only five Central of Georgia steam locomotives are left, and all the others are in museums, he wrote.

Terry Koller, director of railroad operations for the Coastal Heritage Society, said this week that he didn’t think there had been any response to Smith’s letter, but he hoped it had been forwarded to whomever’s now responsible for the engine.

Macon did forward the letter -- to Bennie Ray Anderson Sr., owner of Hartwell. Reichert sent it on Oct. 17 along with a letter of his own.

“If the plans for the restoration of this locomotive by Hartwell Railroad Company have changed, we may want to prepare for an alternative use of this locomotive,” Reichert wrote. “Please advise me of the future plans by Hartwell Railroad Company for the restoration of Locomotive No. 509.”

That prompted an Oct. 30 reply from Anderson, saying Hartwell’s plans have not changed.

“Hartwell Railroad is fully cognizant of the matters raised by the Coastal Heritage Society and feel that our restoration and operational plan better serves the heritage of the locomotive,” Anderson wrote. “The plan is still to move it to another site shortly for further work and restoration.”

Repeated calls by The Telegraph to Hartwell officials have not been returned.

The company sent workers about a year ago to remove paint and asbestos from the engine, in preparation for moving it to a shop for restoration. They returned in September, telling Ben Hamrick, business service manager for Bibb County Parks & Recreation, that the historic locomotive should be rolled away on its own wheels in a couple of weeks or so.

It was county park officials who last saw Hartwell workers because Central City Park transferred July 1 from city to county control. That raises the question of which government is now responsible: the city, which has the contract with Hartwell; or the county, which has possession of the engine.

So far, the engine’s fate has not been discussed by county elected officials, though Parks & Recreation Director Dale “Doc” Dougherty has stated his preference for keeping the engine where it is.

Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said the impending consolidation of city and county governments has raised so many issues that little if any attention has been given to the locomotive.

“It has not, to my knowledge, come up before the (Bibb County) Properties Committee,” said Edwards, a committee member.

Whoever now has control, responsibility for the contract should transfer to the new combined government in a year, said Steve Layson, Bibb County’s chief administrative officer.

The deal says Hartwell agrees to make the engine fully operational, but the company doesn’t give a time limit for doing that. The only time stipulation is to remove asbestos within three years, which has already been done.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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