Examiner Enterprise

For the Love of Trains: Volunteers complete display track for 106-year-old AT&SF No. 940 steam locomotive

By Special to the E-E
Saturday, November 21, 2009 10:55 PM CST

Tom Birkett and Jay Hastings allocated three weeks to build 200 feet of display track at the Santa Fe Depot. The 106-year-old AT&SF No. 940 steam locomotive and her tender will be relocated from Johnstone Park to the depot in early December. Both Birkett and Hastings have years of railway experience. Neither has ever built track. They completed the project in 4.5 days.

Birkett once worked as an extra board switchman for the Santa Fe Railway before moving to the mechanical department in Kansas City as an engineer. He then spent 22 years with Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville as superintendent of Railway Operations. Now retired, he serves as chief engineer for Southwestern Tank Line, LLC.

Jay Hastings is captain of the detective division of the Bartlesville Police Department. In his early days as a patrolman, he worked part time as a switchman for the South Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad and as a conductor on its passenger trains running between Mohawk Park and Collinsville.

Both men have a keen interest in railway history and Hastings has done much to care for and preserve the Hulah Depot in Johnstone Park. Their fellow track builders were rail roader Dan Droege and Hastings’ secret weapon Zach Hilton.

Until the recent economic downturn, Hilton worked as an engineer for WATCO rail operations in Oklahoma and Arkansas, where he also did track work. While his current role is "Mister Mom" to his four-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son, he arranged to spend a week in Bartlesville to guide the novice crew in building track for the AT&SF No. 940.

"I've loved trains longer than I can remember, so working for the railway was just an excuse to go railroading and coming over here to help Jay is the same,"" said Hilton.

Other volunteers included: Jay Hastings, Sr., Dale Neilsen, Arlen Weins and Ken Wright. Street Department Supervisor Lance Brown and city employees John Bridges, Bobby Brown, Mike Florence and Joel Veach stepped in to help on certain tasks.

The city prepared the roadbed, which is on a city easement. Birkett and Hastings salvaged rail from city-owned property. They also secured ties, tie plates, angle bars, track bolts, spikes and rock ballast. Hilton borrowed track gages and track jacks from the Ft. Smith Trolley Museum, where he works as a volunteer.

First Birkett and Hastings set the ties 13 inches apart. Everyone pitched in to place and set the rails, which weigh 90 pounds to the yard.

Most were 31 feet, 6 inches long. Dale Neilsen then spiked the first rail down by hand. A track gage was used to set the second rail. Rail sections were connected using angle irons. Two holes were drilled for the tie plates and spikes, one on each side of the rail. A jackhammer was used to drive the spikes. A backhoe helped straighten rail. The crew used a track jack to raise the ties over low spots in the roadbed so ballast could be tamped in with shovels. A track gage with level checked the result.

When asked to comment on the process both Birkett and Hilton complimented the city employees.

"Ed Gordon has some really great people working at the street department,'' said Birkett. "If we needed something or got in a bind they responded immediately and were really nice to work with."

Hilton appreciated their efficiency.

"They realized we really needed to get this project done, so if they left to get something for us, they came back directly,"" he said. "We never had to wait around."

The unseasonably warm weather was a blessing, the teasing unmerciful, the laughter unending and the work ethic beyond reproach. There were no free lunches - just homemade cookies. The result was perfect. Birkett, Hastings, Hilton and Droege made a pilgrimage to the locomotive where they celebrated their success by climbing into the cab of old No. 940 to talk - trains.

Donors to the AT&SF No. 940 preservation and improvement project include: the Lyon Foundation, ConocoPhillips, the Bowerman Family Fund, Charlie and Julie Daniels, John and Lorna Hughes, Jon and Linda Keller, and Mildred Moore.