The Observer got out with the family and rambled a bit over the long holiday weekend. We get paid to do that, or at least reimbursed for our gas. It's a pretty sweet gig sometimes, though you wouldn't know it to hear us complain every once in a while. This time, we pointed the Mobile Observatory south toward Sheridan, then hopped over to Pine Bluff, where we visited the Arkansas Railroad Museum.
Like tens of thousands of people who once lived and worked there, we haven't been to Pine Bluff in years. If we're being honest, we must admit that we try to avoid it if we can. As you'll find in a lot of cities that were once jewels of the American industrial economy, large swaths of Pine Bluff just look used up, hulled out and sad. The last time we were there was maybe 10 years ago. The Observer had to visit for a story that took us to a building near the old Hotel Pines. It was raining that day; a cold day in the fall, the sky a depressing gray. Peering through the windows into the once-grand lobby, The Observer got a sense that we were looking at a symbol of something or other; a reminder that even the best and most beautiful things we can make as human beings are destined to eventually fall to ruin.
When The Observer returned on Saturday to show Junior the old hotel, we found the street out front blocked by barricades and heaps of bricks, apparently salvaged from the collapsed and jumbled avalanche across the way, which had once been a building. Grown to an older and more cynical mind, we didn't do any deep thinking this time. Instead, we thought: It's money that keeps things upright, dollars for termite inspections and roof patching and caulk. And there's just not enough money in Pine Bluff anymore to justify spending it on old hotels and storefronts.
We weren't expecting much from the Arkansas Railroad Museum. We'd heard about it in passing, of course, but figured it was going to be like dozens of little museums we've visited all over the state: a few dusty items in glass cases, a retired volunteer dozing by the Coke machine. So it was a surprise when we pulled up to the place: a vast, 70,000-square-foot train shed, built in the 1890s of brick and American steel; mother church of a bygone age of steam and smoke.
They have some things in glass cases — railroad china, pocket watches, lead soldiers — but the joy of the place is the rolling stock. Giant engines and cars, their labors ended: five or six diesel locomotives, three restored cabooses, a black iron snowplow that looks like it belongs in "Mad Max: Fury Road," a roofless 1940s Sebring firetruck, pumper handcarts and model trains and flashing lights and railroad-related signage by the ton. The grande dame of the collection is St. Louis Southwestern Engine No. 819, a 200-ton, steam-powered behemoth that was the last locomotive built in Pine Bluff and the state. Completed during World War II, she ran the Cotton Belt Line until her retirement in '53. After languishing in a park for decades, the engine was restored to working condition in the 1980s, and apparently still makes short nostalgia trips from time to time.
The best thing about the Arkansas Railroad Museum is that, other than a few spots blocked off with cones, it's all open. You can stroll through the cabooses and train cars, imagining yourself rocked to sleep on narrow bunks. The Observer had our picture made behind the washtub-sized wheel of the fire truck. Scale the steel ladder welded to one of the diesel giants or the steps to the box cab of Engine 819, and you can plop down in the engineer's seat and pretend you're on the train they call the City of New Orleans, gone 500 miles when the day is done. By the way: If you've got a kid who likes trains — run, don't walk.
Seems like there's another symbol of something in all that retired hardware. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, The Observer and family were having too much fun to think on such things. That's a frown for tomorrow, if ever.