If the legal details can be worked out, Steam Locomotive 509 could be on its way to Savannah before mid-March.
Last week, Terry Koller, director of operations at the Georgia State Railroad Museum, got a favorable reception from Macon-Bibb County commissioners when he renewed an offer to take the engine and attached tender for protection and restoration at the museum. That offer was first made in 2012, but now it has added impetus: a pledge of $70,000 from a private donor in Savannah to move the engine and do some basic work to stabilize its condition. Now the next official move is up to Macon-Bibb officials.
“The timeline is really kind of dependent upon how quickly the city of Macon can agree to some sort of a deal,” Koller said.
That shouldn’t be long in coming, according to Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore. County Attorney Judd Drake emailed Koller shortly after last week’s commission meeting to start talking terms for a formal memorandum of understanding, Floore said.
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Koller said he’d like to see it move by mid-March because a later date would have to be scheduled around other museum commitments, possibly causing further delay.
“To plan and execute the move is going to take a lot of time and effort away from our normal operations at the museum in Savannah,” he said.
Commissioners asked Drake to prepare papers for a “permanent loan” of the historic engine to the museum.
After the paperwork is signed, the engine’s wheels and related moving parts would have to be inspected, cleaned and lubricated before it could move from its perch of 58 years in Central City Park, Koller said. Locomotive 509 would need to roll on its own wheels before it could move to Savannah, and once in the museum there would roll to different positions as exhibits changed, he said.
In May 2011, Macon agreed to lease the engine and attached coal tender to Hartwell Railroad Co. for 30 years at $1 per year. In exchange, the Bowersville company offered to rebuild the locomotive as an excursion train for use mostly on its north Georgia lines, with discounted trips to Macon residents at least twice a year.
The contract gave Hartwell three years to make substantial progress on restoration. About the start of 2012, workers removed paint and asbestos from the engine. At some point, Hartwell also cut a number of metal parts from the engine and cab, including some Koller described as very valuable.
But nothing else happened, despite occasional assurances from Hartwell that work would soon restart, and the train’s exposed boiler began to rust. When the three-year mark passed May 11, 2014, without any action, Drake sent Hartwell a letter terminating the lease and returning the nominal payment. In mid-July, Drake asked for the missing parts back; they arrived about six weeks later, and are stored in a building at Central City Park.
But Macon-Bibb had not alternative plans for the engine, apart from what Floore described as “just idle discussions” about moving it near Terminal Station.
That’s where the railroad museum came in. Koller said he understood the desire to keep the engine local, but that it needed shelter and treatment to prevent further deterioration. Last week, Mayor Robert Reichert agreed.
Koller said the currently available money would stabilize the visible corrosion and pay to paint the engine.
“The big question is how far we’ll get on the reinstallation of all those parts,” he said. If the engine moves by March, that initial restoration could be done by the end of 2015, Koller said.
After that, a fundraising effort could start to pay for more. Koller said it would take about $250,000 to do a full “aesthetic” restoration of the engine, and cost $1.8 million to $2 million to get it back in running condition.
Since the contract with Hartwell specified that the engine had to be returned in equivalent or better condition, there has been some talk of asking Hartwell to compensate Macon-Bibb for the subsequent corrosion and cutting off multiple parts. But Floore said Hartwell could surely claim to have put some money into removing the asbestos, and seeking anything further might not be worth the time and legal expense it would take.
Once Locomotive 509 is ensconced in Savannah, some sort of sign would indicate Macon-Bibb’s continued ownership, Koller said. It would also commemorate Macon community volunteer Benny Scott, to whom the engine’s display is currently dedicated.
Scott was the first black fireman on the Central of Georgia Railroad and was the fireman on the final run of Locomotive 509, the railroad’s last steam engine.
“We would preserve all that history,” Koller said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.