Historic locomotive in Macon gathers more rust

Despite promises, no action on train restoration

jgaines@macon.comJuly 15, 2013 

More than two years after a railroad company offered to take Steam Locomotive 509 from Central City Park and put it back in service, the engine and its attached tender remain immobilized by rust where they’ve sat since 1956.

Some months back, workers from Hartwell Railroad Co. of Bowersville told Ben Hamrick, business service manager for Bibb County Parks & Recreation, that they would move the engine to a repair facility in a week or so.

“I guess that week has not come yet,” Hamrick said. The workers haven’t been back, he said.

Since then the city has heard similar promises, said Chris Floore, city public affairs director.

“We did receive a phone call from the company within the past month and a half stating they would be coming down soon to move it a small distance and cover it,” he said Monday. “However, we have not heard back since.”

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

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.

About the start of 2012, workers arrived to remove paint and asbestos from the engine. That was a necessary preparation for restoration, but it also left the metal exposed to weather.

“The lack of progress is concerning, though, as it continues to sit exposed to the elements after having the protective coating removed, and we are considering exploring other options to protect this piece of Macon’s history,” Floore said.

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 interest in the engine if Hartwell wasn’t going to do any more with it.

He offered to house it in the museum’s roundhouse, protected from the weather.

Reichert sent the letter on to Bennie Ray Anderson Sr., owner of Hartwell, asking the railroad’s plans. That drew an Oct. 30 reply, in which Anderson said he still intended to move the locomotive for restoration “shortly.”

In any case, Smith clarified Monday that while the railroad museum would be willing to display Locomotive 509, the Coastal Heritage Society couldn’t afford to restore it or even get it there.

“We don’t have any spare capacity in our organization, and we are also dealing with some partially finished projects that we need to take care of,” he said. “We could receive it, but we couldn’t afford to move it; because it’d probably cost $40,000 to move it.”

That’s a guess, but any move or restoration would be very complicated, Scott said. To restore the engine to Federal Railroad Administration standards would likely cost more than $1 million, he said.

Smith said the railroad museum would be glad to offer its technical expertise to Macon or anyone else, but can’t really get involved in a project that’s sure to be complicated.

Though Central City Park transferred to Bibb County ownership under a service delivery deal last year, the locomotive remains city property, and hence the lease remains valid, interim City Attorney Judd Drake said.

“I’ve spoken with (Bibb County Attorney) Virgil Adams, and we’ve agreed that the city’s going to continue dealing with that matter until consolidation,” Drake said.

City and county governments are due to merge in January 2014. All agreements made by existing city and county governments will be assumed by the new government.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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