Reader Number 11 and ex-Milwaukee combine 501 after a good day's work. February 5, 1964.
Reader Railroad’s listing in The Official Guide of the Railways proudly proclaimed, “The last remaining regularly scheduled mixed train drawn exclusively by steam locomotives.” Perhaps to emphasize, under “equipment,” the listing elaborated, “Note: steam power is guaranteed on all trains.”
In the early 1960s, steam was disappearing all across the land. There were only a few holdouts on mainlines and shortlines, and those were disappearing at an alarming rate. The outlook for steam enthusiasts was grim and growing grimmer. It seemed that one day very soon there would not be an operating steam locomotive anywhere in the country, perhaps anywhere in the world.
I had just graduated from college and started to plan my first big solo driving trip to accept a job in Houston. Naturally, I consulted the guide for anything of interest near my route from Illinois to Texas.
So it was that I arrived early in Reader, Arkansas one cloudy Wednesday in February to check out and ride the Reader. Prominent signs along the road into town extolled the virtues and availability of “Choice Industrial Sites” along Reader Railroad.
I soon located the tiny white and green, ex-Missouri Pacific frame station. There I bought a round trip ticket for Reader’s three-times a week mixed train to Waterloo. Then I went in search of the locomotives. Hidden in the woods about a quarter mile away, I located a corrugated iron, two-stall engine house, and outside the building, were engines 108 and 11, both comely little Prairie types.
Our engine joins our train.
The crew were busy preparing Number 11 for the day’s work. My biggest thrill of the day occurred when I was allowed to ride the locomotive from the engine house back to the station with the engineer and fireman. I had previously managed a few very short cab rides on the Burlington’s big steam specials, but I longed for more. Unlike the bigger engines, from Number 11 you could actually see most of the track ahead.
By the time Reader Train Number 1 was ready, a light rain was falling. I was the only passenger, and I shared ex-Milwaukee Road, fluted sided, open-platform combine Number 501 with the brakeman and the conductor. Our car was coupled behind a long string of empty tank cars on their way to Reader’s primary customer, an asphalt refinery near the end of the railroad.
Making up the train.
“The ‘Possum Trot Line,” stretched from the little former lumber mill town of Reader, Arkansas to Waterloo, 23.5 miles. Intermediate (flag) stations listed in the guide were Ada, Dewoody Spur, Cummings Springs, Dills Mill, Anthony Switch, and Ames. The trip was through dense forest, dripping with water that day. Beaver ponds were visible along the right-of way. I saw two very small lumber operations and then, near the end of the line, the reason for Reader’s existence: the Berry Refinery.
The refinery complex was not very big and had a distinctly homemade look about it. The surrounding ground was covered with puddles of water and thick, black petroleum. Boards were placed down to help workers avoid walking in some of the worst spills. Our crew dropped the tank cars off, and we continued up the line to Waterloo – just the engine and the combine. There the engine was turned on the wye and tied up for lunch directly in front of Reader’s second, and only other, depot. The building stood alone except for two traditional outhouses. Empty picnic tables were scattered among tall trees.
That rain slicker proved useful.
There was little appeal for the idea of eating outside that day, so we had our lunch inside the station. Hot dogs and hamburgers were sold by the lady in charge. Following lunch a short discussion among the crew delayed our 2 pm scheduled departure because it was still raining a little. There was plenty of time for the brakeman to challenge me to a game of checkers. Following a thoroughly humiliating defeat, I learned that he was the county champion.
The drizzle was still falling when we finally left Waterloo. Reason for the rain delay soon became apparent: switching the refinery was done on the return trip. The conductor and brakemen spent lots of time treading the wet, oil soaked ground.
The new engine, the 1702.
Just as we arrived back in Reader the rain finally stopped. I was able to get a few final shots of the engine turning on the wye. Then it was time to continue my journey. A stop at Camden, Texas to see the Moscow Camden & San Augustine was scheduled for the next day.
It wasn’t much later that I read in Trains Magazine that the Reader, with some fanfare, had acquired a new locomotive (steam, of course). This new engine, a consolidation, was considerably larger than her two sisters. Photos showed that the 1702 was a bit of an ugly duckling. The ex-Army engine, built in 1942, had a scrunched down appearance due to European clearances required for overseas service. Reader rebuilt the locomotive, improving her looks a little in the process.
The 1702 was not the most attractive of the Reader's three engines.
But before being placed in service, 1702 was sent to Mississippi to work, some would say star, in the movie, “This Property is Condemned.” Robert Redford and Natalie Wood costarred in this 1966 adaptation of a play by Tennessee Williams.
During my first visit, I learned too late that, simply by asking for and signing a waver, I would have been permitted to ride the engine for the entire trip! I left Houston to go to graduate school in California, but returned to a new job in Dallas. Naturally, I had to go back to Reader for a real cab ride. On July 28, 1967, I did, and of course, I asked for and signed a waver. Sure enough, the new engine, the 1702, was the power that day.
Veteran Reader engineer, Artemis Adams at the throttle of the 1702. July 29, 1967.
Veteran engineer, Adams, was at the throttle again. Artemis Adams had joined Reader in 1925. He was in fact a hogger even when he wasn’t railroading: he had a nearby pig farm. Mr. Adams always seemed a pleasant man, but a taciturn one. I don’t think he ever said a word to me.
I spent much of the trip watching the activity in the cab or leaning out from the gangway savoring my view of rod motion, and the track ahead. The sounds of the engine working, and even the smells, unique to steam, were not to be missed.
There was an unexpected hazard though to hanging out the right-hand gangway. After narrowly escaping disaster, I learned to keep a wary eye on our engineer. When he leaned way out of the cab window with an odd but characteristic look on his face, it was time to pull in. I was young and naïve then; I had never actually seen anyone use chewing tobacco before.
A ride on the 108 completed the set of three.
The railroad had originally been built as a lumber railway, but became a common carrier in 1925 after the Irma Oilfield was discovered in the area near Waterloo. The petroleum from this field tended to be thick asphalt and, therefore, was difficult to pipe out. This, of course, was good for the continuing business of the railroad, and fuel oil for Reader’s steam locomotives could be obtained cheaply.
Tom Long acquired the railroad from Mansfield Hardwood in 1956 continuing a family tradition: his wife’s father and grandfather had each been president of the line before him. When people started showing up in ever growing numbers to see his steam locomotives in operation, he decided to get into the passenger business – eventually operating three passenger cars.
I returned a third time on June 13, 1970, and “Mr. Tom,” as he was known, was riding on the footboard working as brakeman. That time I was lucky enough to ride the 108. I made two more visits in early 1972, but since I was passing through or traveling with others in a hurry to move on, I only had time to take a few photos. On one of these trips, one of my railfan companions was astonished to see freight actually being switched by steam – he had never seen that done before.
Switching the MP interchange. The Reader, Arkansas station and the passenger cars are visable in the background.
Of course, nothing this good could last forever. The Berry Refinery closed down, and not surprisingly, so did the Reader Railroad. The last train was operated in 1974.
But the story does not end there. An effort was made to save the entire railway, but by 1975, most of the line had been scrapped leaving only the portion from Reader to the Hwy 24 crossing (DeWoody). What was left, not including the locomotives, was sold to a local group known as the Valley Corp. They soon contracted with Richard Grigsby to operate trains using Louisiana Long Leaf 2-6-2 #7. Four additional locomotives were acquired from the bone yard of W. T. Carter & Bro. at Camden, Texas (see Iron Horses put out to pasture). The original idea was to do a country music theme park, but that fell through. Reader Industries was formed to take over the Railroad’s assets.
Starting in 1975, the new owners began operations using Number 7 and later added former W. T. Carter & Bro. 2-6-0 Number 2 which I saw at Camden, Texas the next day after my first ride on the Reader. After several years of operation, Reader Industries no longer operates trains on its own track. However, it still owns and maintains locomotives and cars used by other operators and, following in the tradition of Reader 1702, for use in movies. There are ongoing plans to refurbish track and equipment, and to operate trains once again.
The brakeman stands by the switchstand as 108 prepairs to move.
I am pleased to report that the worst fears of a young steam fan were averted. Steam is scarce here in the United States, but it is not forgotten: the people of the Reader and of many other operations maintain and operate historic equipment. They prevented my greatly feared outcome, and they continue to do so nearly fifty years later.
|Number||Type||Builder||Current owner, Location|
|11||2-6-2||Baldwin 1920||Central Chapter NRHS (?), Nicholasville, Kentucky|
|108||2-6-2||Baldwin 1920||Tuscumbia Railway, Tuscumbia, Alabama (recently acquired but still stored in parts in Sulphur Springs, TX)|
|1702||2-8-0||Baldwin 1942||The Great Smoky Mountain Railway, Sylva, North Carolina|
|Engine||Type||Builder||Original owner, Location|
|1||2-6-0||Baldwin 1906||W. T. Carter, Reader, AR|
|2||2-6-0||Baldwin 1907||W. T. Carter, Orange Blossom Cannonball, Tavares, FL|
|4||2-6-2||Baldwin 1913||W. T. Carter, Reader, AR|
|7||2-6-2||Baldwin 1907||Louisiana Longleaf Lumber Reader, AR|
|201||2-6-0||Alco (Cooke) 1906||Moscow Camden & San Augustine, leased to Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Ry, Eureka Springs, AR|
|“This Property is Condemned”||1966|
|“The Town That Dreaded Sundown”||1976|
|“The Blue and The Gray”||1981|
|“North and South Part I”||1985|
|“North and South Part II”||1986|
|“Old Hot Springs”||1988|
|“Four Seasons of Arkansas”||1989|
|“O Brother Where Art Though”||2000|
|“There will be Blood”||2007|
|“3:10 to Yuma”||2007|