Neither thunder, lightning nor heavy rains could derail an Oct. 18, 1983, organizational meeting of the Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society at Pine Bluff’s Union Station depot. On Saturday at the Arkansas Railroad Museum, the group was equally steadfast when it ignored a passing storm while celebrating its 30th anniversary with a public reception.
As rain pelted the museum’s flat metal roof in a former car shop that dates back nearly 120 years, Jefferson County Judge Dutch King told an audience of about 50 people that it certainly would be interesting “if these walls could talk.” He said he imagined the walls would give testimony to CBRHS’ success in meeting the challenge of initiating and then expanding on preservation of train history in a format enjoyed by visitors from throughout the world.
Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth expanded on the widespread draw of the tourist attraction, noting that the museum last year counted almost 8,000 visitors. While the majority were Arkansans, nearly 2,000 were from elsewhere within the country and abroad, including Australia, France, Germany and Japan.
“When we talk about positive things for Pine Bluff, the Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society and Arkansas Railroad Museum are prime examples,” the mayor said.
Pine Bluff Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Greg Gustek recognized a number of charter members, including Bill Bailey, Daryl Cason, Jake Commer, T.D. Davis, Frank Dooms, Lynn Gaines, Red Gatlin, Rusty Hughes, Jim Johnson, Bill McCaskill, Robert McClanahan, Joe McCullough, Joe McNabb and Peter Smykla. Gustek also acknowledged CBRHS officer and long-time rail museum volunteer Elizabeth Gaines.
Gustek credited Gaines as being a primary force behind the museum’s ongoing achievements.
Gaines joked that she’s looking forward to CBRHS’ 50th anniversary.
“You’ll be pushing me around in a wheelchair then,” she laughed.
Commer, on the mend from some recent health issues, said it doesn’t seem possible that three decades have passed since CBRHS’ founding.
“It’s hard to believe that that much time has gone by, but it has,” he said. “I think about how many years I’ve had a relationship with the railroad, and it’s hard to imagine where all the years have gone. I worked for the railroad here back in the ’40s, and started working here again with (Cotton Belt steam locomotive) Engine 819 and the museum when I retired after 40 years with the post office.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of changes.”
Although the railroad museum has already served the city well, Commer believes its best days are ahead.
“I see some good possibilities,” he said. “Pine Bluff needs to change its image, and I think this museum will help.”