The Dilemma of the 502

2020 by Bill Pollard

In September 1948, the Helena and Northwestern Railway was incorporated to restore rail freight service on the southern segment of the abandoned Missouri & Arkansas Railway, extending from Helena to Wheatley and Cotton Plant. Revenues were less than expected, partially because nearby trunk likes (Missouri Pacific, Rock Island and Cotton Belt) were not particularly receptive to routing overhead traffic over the H&NW. As a result the railroad ended train operations on October 18, 1951, and most of the line was subsequently abandoned.

The H&NW took possession of the former M&A trackage on May 12, 1949, and began restoring track and bridges to operating condition. Two 2-8-0 steam locomotives were purchased through equipment dealer Georgia Car & Locomotive, both arriving in Helena via the Illinois Central carferry Pelican on September 14, 1949. These locomotives had been Apalachicola Northern 200 and 201, and they retained the same numbers on the Helena and Northwestern. A 70-ton General Electric diesel locomotive was purchased new from GE and shipped to Helena sometime after June 1950. The two steam locomotives were photographed coupled pilot to pilot in May 1951 in Helena, along with caboose HNW 2. Whether they were in service or stored serviceable at that time is unclear. After the H&NW ceased operations, diesel 70 was sold to the Mississippi Export Railroad in December 1951 and shipped out of Helena on the IC carferry. Disposition of the two H&NW steam locomotives is currently unknown.

When H&NW ceased operation, a new company was formed to operate the Fargo-Cotton Plant segment. Train operations began October 21, 1951, three days after HNW operations ceased, using a leased steam locomotive. This locomotive is currently unidentified, but could be one of the HNW locomotives. Cotton Belt steamer #601 was delivered on February 20, 1952, allowing release of the leased locomotive. A small Plymouth gas-electric locomotive was purchased second-hand later in 1952, and the steam locomotive was shipped to Memphis in late June 1952 to be scrapped.

Against this backdrop, we have the possible use of DeKalb & Western 2-8-0 #502. Three photographs of this locomotive show it in use in a location that might be Cotton Plant. These images were first published in Oak Leaves, the publication of the North Arkansas Line's history group, from the collection of Jim Wakefield. Jim got the photos and the information on the presumed Cotton Plant connection, from Charlie Ost, a former C&NW brakeman (and occasionally Reader RR brakeman) who lived in Arkansas in the 1960s. DK&W #502 was Baldwin c/n 42781, built 1-1916 for the Poplarville Saw Mill Company #9 in Poplarville, MS. It later became DeKalb & Western #9 by 6-1917 and was eventually renumbered DeKalb & Western #502. The DeKalb & Western was abandoned in December 1949 and this locomotive would presumably not have been released for other sale until early 1950. It seems unlikely that the locomotive would have been sought by the H&NW at that time, when they already had two steam locomotives on the property and a diesel on order, unless possibly flue time had expired on one of their locomotives and a replacement was being sought on a temporary basis while one of theirs was shopped, or awating the delivery of their diesel.

Another possibility was that the locomotive was being tested by the Cotton Plant-Fargo, and was perhaps the leased locomotive that was used from the time the H&NW operation ended in October 1951 until Cotton Belt 601 was delivered in early 1952. The locomotive was reported by Baldwin traveling salesmen to be at St. Francis Material Co. in July 1951. The offices of this company were in Forrest City, but the gravel plant and rail operation may have been on the former Crow Creek Gravel Company spur extending north from the Rock Island at Madison. An additional unknown is the presence of Farrell Locomotive Works, a known second-hand dealer and shop for logging and shortline steam locomotives. The Farrell shop was located at Brinkley, on the Cotton Belt, only five miles south of Fargo. A full accounting of Farrell locomotive resale activity is unavailable, but it is possible that DK&W 502 passed through Farrell Locomotive Works ownership between its tenure in Mississippi and its ultimate usage in Arkansas.

The following photos show the Cotton Plant depot circa 1930 and another view in August 1952. Note that the details of the brick chimneys in the 1930 view are different than the view which appears in the background of one of the #502 images, and that the depot chimneys are gone altogether by the time of the August 1952 view of the Cotton Plant depot. The views of #502 show a scale track adjacent to the mainline track on which they are switching, and indeed such was the case at Cotton Plant. So... was DK&W 502 actually at Cotton Plant for a period, or was this just a series of coincidences? Perhaps the first step is to determine whether the three photos of 502 were at any known location on the De Kalb & Western or otherwise recognizable by DK&W historians.

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