An old wooden rail car that was in danger of being condemned in Bald Knob is expected to get a new lease on life at the St. Joe Historic Depot Museum in Searcy County.
“The St. Joe Railroad Museum wants it and they have a railroad mover who says he can move it, hopefully in the spring,” White County Historical Society President Shelly Churchwell said at last week’s Bald Knob City Council meeting. “He is on another project right now in Texas so when he becomes available, everything works out how we hope it will, it will be moved to St. Joe.”
She said the museum in St. Joe “was the original location of ... the Missouri North Arkansas Railroad. They still have the depot. They refurbished it.”
“They recently acquired a caboose and so now they want this car to go with their exhibit,” Churchwell said. “It’s in sad condition and needs extensive repair. We had raised some money to repair the railcar and we have pledged that money to them to go in on the move.”
In July, state Rep. Craig Christiansen was given six months by the Bald Knob City Council to clean up a Bald Knob hotel that dates back to the 1920s and the rail car and get them on historic registers.
“The wooden rail car is the last surviving car off the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad as far as the passenger equipment goes,” Christiansen said then. “It was brought over here a number of years ago and volunteer help kind of dissipated.”
Churchwell said the society had heard about the the rail car possibly being condemned. “We have been working trying to get it from Bald Knob for a few years.”
The new home for the rail car was built in 1902, said Louis Still, president of the St. Joe Depot’s 10-member board of directors.
“It’s still on the same foundation it was built on then,” Still said. “The railroad track came right in in front of it and then they had a track behind as a parking track. It was active from 1902 until 1946. I think the ending thing was that they had another railroad strike and the railroad was weak anyway and they said, ‘We can’t stand another one,’ so they just shut it down.”
Still said “the track was taken up” by 1949, and in 2009, the depot was a freestanding building that had been a feed store, a church, a classroom when St. Joe’s School burned down and a resale shop.
“At the time I bought it, there wasn’t anything in it so it was just sitting there empty,” he said. “In talking with the mayor of St. Joe at the time, his name was John Henley, about saving it, making it into a museum, he was all for it, so we went to work and got the city to approve what they would on it. It was tough to do but we did it.
“So then once he got the OK on it from the city, then he started getting some grants and some money because the building needed some repair. The first thing it needed was a roof because when a roof goes, the whole building goes. We got it fixed up and scratched around it and found the original colors and painted it back the original colors that it was. It still has the same old floors in it, the same walls. A lot of the glass was broken but they took the glass out and put in plexiglass. It really was a mistake because you can’t clean it, so we’re in the process of maybe getting some glass back in it.”
The museum has generated interest from multiple states, according to Still. “We have a lot of artifacts in it. We got a lot of pictures of St. Joe. At one time, St. Joe had four hotels, and there’s one across the highway being refurbished. It even had a bank. It was 2,700 population back in the day, now it’s down to 132. We got two of the little Fairmont Speedsters that did the maintenance work on the railroad. They made the engine for it also. We got a caboose and we built a new railroad behind so we could set the caboose on it.”
In regard to St. Joe wanting the wooden rail car, Still said “it’s the only one left that we can find out about, know of. That [rail car] is probably late 1800’s, 1895 I think is the date on that. It was an all-wooden car, mostly. To put it lightly, it’s going to take a lot of work because it’s really, really in bad shape.”
“When we got the caboose, the little lady in Harrison where we got it from was just about in tears to see it leave there, but we told he it is going to be visible in St. Joe, anytime she wants to come visit,” he said. “She had her grandchildren there and they were just ecstatic seeing it and going through it and learning about it. That’s a big thing.”
The sentiment among Bald Knob officials concerning the rail car was more like good riddance.
“We have had to look at that rail car all these years and it’s not even going to be here, they are going to put it in St. Joe, Ark., at their museum, but at least we will be rid of it,” Mayor Barth Grayson said. “Someone who have agreed to help with it before have died. We have given them an extension to March, which is right around the corner.”
Council member David Smith said some kind of fencing needs to be put around the rail car for safety until it is moved. Grayson told Smith he was going to ask the road department to put a snow fence around it.
“I think we baby-sat that thing way too long,” Smith said. Grayson added, “But I want to escort it out, I think we will all be glad to see it go.”