COLUMBUS — Four decades have passed since the 19th-century train came to rest at Propst Park, and since that time, it has stood silent sentry over Main Street.
Juveniles threw rocks and broke a few windows, and a person was once found living inside one of the cars, but for the most part, the train has been free of vagrants and vandals, ravaged only by time.
Work began this month to preserve the train, and though progress is slow, care is being taken to do the job professionally, said Paul Swain, chairman of the six-member board devoted to the project.
Although a chain-link fence surrounds the area, supporters hope one day a platform will be installed around the train, allowing visitors to peer inside and get a glimpse of another era. That’s several years away, Swain said, but little by little, progress is being made.
Broken windows have been replaced. Rotten boards have been replaced on the 1890s caboose, and the repainting and weatherproofing is 90 percent complete. A metal sign affixed to the fence announces “Preservation in Progress” and lists the sponsors.
Swain said he and other board members began soliciting money from the city three administrations ago, and they’ve found good support from Mayor Robert Smith.
The city provides around $10,000 per year for the train’s preservation and upkeep, and the board is seeking grants, but with the total project expected to cost around $250,000, it will take a while.
Still, Swain said the board appreciates the city’s financial assistance and is actively seeking grants to offset the costs. In the future, they may even have a festival to raise money, he said.
Eventually, the inside will be painted and new fixtures installed, but right now the focus is on the exterior. When work begins on the 1900 locomotive at the front of the train, asbestos abatement will be necessary.
Swain has been fascinated with trains since childhood. When he was six or seven years old, he “stole” the train which now sits in front of the Columbus and Greenville Railway Roundhouse. He had been aboard the train and watched an engineer operate it, so one day, while his parents and he dined at a nearby restaurant he slipped down to the tracks and took the train for a brief joyride.
The story embarrasses him a bit now, but the escapade didn’t go without punishment. His father made a pretty strong impression that such behavior was not the thing to do, Swain said, laughing.
The railroad is an important part of the city’s heritage, and it’s unique for a city to have a full “consist” — a train with the locomotive, cars and caboose, Swain said. At one time, there were four passenger stations in town.
“Columbus has a long history of trains,” he said. “I just think it’s a part of history we need to preserve. If you don’t study history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”
Eventually, the board hopes to have a museum named after Robert Stovall, the man who donated the train to Columbus.