A 101-year-old steam locomotive that once plied the steel ribbons between Jacksonville and Virginia, then was displayed downtown before its move to the Prime Osborn Convention Center’s parking lot, has another journey to make.
The City Council approval for the move came despite a local historian’s efforts to stop what he called “the great train robbery,” which will now see Atlantic Coast Line No. 1504 go to Clewiston to become the U.S. Sugar Corp.’s historic Sugar Express tourist train attraction.
Wayne Wood called the council’s 16-to-2 vote last Tuesday to transfer title to the National Railway Historical Society’s local chapter so the locomotive could be moved to Clewiston’s Sugar Express for passenger excursions “a terrible idea.” Calling No. 1504 one of our city’s great landmarks with National Register of Historic Places designation, Wood said the locomotive is one of the last great railroad engines in the South.
He sees no way to appeal the vote.
“Literally this train is down the track and it’s sad because it is an icon and it belonged to the public,” Wood said.
But after years of tending to the 80-foot-long train, including a 2015 exterior restoration, railway society chapter president John Holmgren said his board readily agreed to a chance to get it running again when U.S. Sugar called a few months ago.
“We were excited about the possibility of the locomotive being restored and returning to operation,” Holmgren said. “We all knew that the locomotive was essentially sitting there rusting away. For 22 years the city had really not paid any attention to it. … We are pleased that it’s going to be preserved, restored and operational.”
The American Locomotive Co. in Richmond, Va., built the 471,000-pound engine and tender in 1919, and it needed 10,000 gallons of water and 16 tons of coal to turn its 73-inch-tall drive wheels on passenger runs from Jacksonville’s train station, now the convention center, and Virginia.
When the huge locomotive was retired, it was eventually moved in 1960 for display in front of Atlantic Coast Line (now CSX) on Water Street. Then it was moved in 1989 to the back of the convention center after its conversion, displayed just feet from the rails it used to ride.
The locomotive got $75,000 in renovations, then another $10,000 in work in 1998, but began to rust as the railway society’s chapter unsuccessfully sought restoration grants. Then the chapter joined other train historical societies to request, then win, a $10,000 restoration grant in 2015 from Trains Magazine.
CSX matched the grant, which came as No. 1504 topped the railway society’s Endangered U.S. Railroad Landmarks list. Society members cleaned and repainted No. 1504 after sanding away rust, securing its windows and protecting its interior, Holmgren said.
At the time, magazine editor Jim Wrinn said it was a landmark locomotive with national appeal.
“There is a considerable urgency to doing something about it,” Wrinn said in a 2015 Times-Union interview. “It is in a tough climate to preserve a large piece of metal. … This is hopefully the beginning. It needs a cover, and it needs a fund endowment to keep restoration and maintenance going.”
Six years after that work, Holmgren said the locomotive was suffering from the weather despite the work his volunteers could do. Then Sugar Express LLC said it was interested in restoring it to operational condition. It also agreed to raise money for scholarships to help Duval County high school students attend a historic rail camp. And it agreed that ticket sale proceeds in the first year of operations would go to society rail preservation projects and further scholarship endowments.
Wood maintains there were other options to keep the locomotive local. Moving it inside the Prime Osborn or giving it a weatherproof structure could preserve it until it could join the proposed Museum of Science and History move to the Northbank area with the USS Orleck ship display and Jacksonville Fire Museum.
“It would be a great place to have a locomotive preserved for future generations and make it a critical mass for one great family attraction in Jacksonville,” Wood said.
During the June 2 Finance Committee meeting, City Councilman Matt Carlucci said that while he likes looking at the locomotive, he said he doesn’t like “looking at it being ignored.” And he had second thoughts about seeing it go when the bill came up for a final vote last Tuesday.
“This train is an icon,” Carlucci said. ”… Can’t we wait a couple of weeks just to see if there is somebody here in Jacksonville, some organization or person, who might like to offer other plans that would keep the train right here at home?”
But if someone else was interested locally, “they would have come to us” already, while this plan makes sense, fellow member Reggie Gaffney said. In the end, Carlucci and Randy DeFoor were the only votes against it.
Holmgren said the bill does say that if the Sugar Express project does not occur, then the historical society would have right of first refusal on the locomotive’s return. He also has assurances from U.S. Sugar that No. 1504 could visit its old home again.
“We are trying not to lose the connection to Jacksonville,” Holmgren said. ”… The parties are working it out. It would be great PR for us, U.S. Sugar and their train system. We are hopeful that it will return to Jacksonville.”
The City Council action also removed the National Register of Historic Places designation on the locomotive when it is moved. U.S. Sugar hopes to move the locomotive in a few months, first on a huge truck, then a transfer to a flatbed rail car for shipment, Holmgren said.