Old Town train right on track for makeover

02/03/2014 7:57 PM

02/03/2014 7:58 PM

Old Town Keller’s vintage 1917 Rock Island Railroad car is back on track for a makeover as a place where visitors can watch trains pass nearby.

Rebecca Harness, owner of Old Town Quits and chairwoman of the Old Town Keller Merchants Association, said her group has gotten past controversy over the railcar and are working to make it a tourist attraction.

The railcar was bought by the foundation in November 2011 for $18,000 using five years of profit from the annual Krawfish Krawl in Keller and was permanently placed at 199 Lamar St.

For a time, the railcar was not a popular purchase with all members of the association, some of whom opposed the deal, calling it an "eyesore."

In May 2012, the association sold the train for scrap at $3,500 during a monthly meeting when most supporters of the train were not in attendance, Harness said.

Association members have worked since then to find the scrap pieces and rebuild the train. The four members who opposed keeping the train, including the former president who pushed for the sale, are no longer a part of the association, said Terry Thomas, association first vice president.

"We stood our ground," Harness said. "Our bylaws say to put our efforts into Old Town itself and that’s what we did."

Businesses near that area thought to use the space for parking, but city land use plans and the railroad being so close prevented that from becoming an option.

"That was never going to happen," Thomas said. "So we wanted to do something for the tourists and train enthusiasts in the area to come out and enjoy a historical piece."

Once completed, visitors can watch other trains go by and hear real railroad engineers talk to dispatchers over the radio.

"It’s a necessity," Harness said. "The whole thing was to start this train park and make use of the display we already had. We didn’t know about any setbacks until they happened so we had to make the decision of giving up or to keep going."

Throughout the spring, the railcar will undergo work to make it comply with safety regulations after six to eight months of vandalism, including a new platform, custom welding and new end caps.

It will be painted green, just like it was in 1928, Harness said.

"We had to go through three or four people before someone took us seriously about redesign," Harness said. "We had to work with volunteers and find people who would actually do the job."

The old Rock Island logo will be re-created just as it was more than 80 years ago.

The overall cost for the redesign is $10,000 - mostly for welding and graffiti-proof paint, both of which will be done by local professionals. The train’s new windows will be made of a product equal to the strength of police riot shields, Harness said.

"[Vandals] can shoot it with a shotgun and it won’t break it," she said.

Thomas said he hopes to see the project finished by the end of spring or summer.

"It’s too important," he said. "People take photos with it. There’s an interest in it and it’s a historical piece where very few exist. We couldn’t let something like that go."

Harness said the process has been a learning experience.

"There are always people who don’t have the whole story," she said. "It was just a matter of getting them educated to the rules."

Anyone interested in learning about other Old Town projects from the foundation can visit its website at www.otkf.org/news.html.

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