A dozen or so volunteers generally show up at Ochsner Hospital’s rail yard off Jefferson Highway on Saturday mornings to do maintenance work on the Southern Pacific Engine 745 – the last remaining steam locomotive built in Algiers. The team has been working overtime the last couple of weeks to give the engine a tune-up before its annual Federal Railroad Administration inspection and to get ready for the celebration of Steam Fest.
The Louisiana Steam Train Association is planning a weekend of history and music on the “fly” behind the Audubon Zoo on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eight bluegrass bands, including Hazel & The Delta Ramblers and the Fabulous Bagasse Boyz, will provide entertainment. Educational exhibits in the rail cars provide insight into the railroad’s connections with bluegrass music, the history of the locomotive and the building of the Huey P. Bridge to accommodate rail traffic. Before the bridge was built, ferries took hundreds of railroad cars a day across the Mississippi to continue on their westward journeys.
There are approximately 200 steam locomotives left in the United States, mostly in Colorado and New Mexico. When the railroad industry declined after World War II, the Southern Pacific continued to build locomotives in Algiers including 11 identical models, numbered 738-749. The 745 was the first completed in 1921 and is the only one extant.
Southern Pacific retired the 745 from service in 1956. A private citizen suggested in a letter to the editor that the locomotive be placed in Audubon Park and Times-Picayune writer Howard Jacobs promoted its installation there in his “Remoulade” column. “The 745 is known to my generation as the Audubon Park locomotive,” said Louis Saillard, 60, the group’s self-appointed historian.
“Kids would climb all over it and ring the bell,” Saillard recalled.
After 28 years of weather damage and vandalism, the locomotive was put into storage for 20 years until a group of concerned citizens formed LASTA in 1997 to raise $1 million and restore it to its former glory.
Rebuilding was completed in late 2004 and the locomotive put into service to celebrate the Louisiana Purchase bicentennial. “After 48 years of being cold,” the 745 followed the tracks to 22 cities throughout Louisiana and Southern Mississippi, Saillard said. Four passenger cars were purchased from other railroads to create exhibit areas.
A crew of nine later took the train to Kansas City, Mo., for the reopening of that city’s Union Station as a museum and entertainment complex.
LASTA’s chief mechanical officer, Gerald Lynch, was a chemical engineer with steam experience. One of his childhood hobbies was playing with miniature “HO” trains. Now retired, he heads up maintenance on the 745, pressure-testing the boiler, cleaning the pipes and making sure all the systems are checked out. Most commercial trains are safety-tested every 31 operating days, but because the 745 sits idle much of the year, it is inspected annually, Lynch said.
A recent filming of the movie, “Jonah Hex,” due to be released in June 2010 and starring Josh Brolin as the comic book character of the same name, used the 745 in its Wild West scenes. The movie studio paid LASTA a good sum to feature the locomotive during several days of shooting. “That money has taken us a long way to restoring that engine,” said Ed Ernewein, who belonged to a model railroad club before becoming a volunteer on the 745. The filming left a lot of soot in the smokebox that required cleaning out before the annual inspection.
"Steam Fest is our biggest opportunity of the year to raise funds and attract new members," LASTA President Bill Morris said. "Money and volunteers are essential to the continued operation and maintenance of this most unique piece of Louisiana railroad history: Southern Pacific steam locomotive No. 745, the Spirit of Louisiana."