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Gaining steam: Train engine lost in 1885 crash in Arlington sought for hotel lobby

What a publicity gimmick it would be. Developer Ed Casebier and his partners want to dig up an old steam engine that has been buried in an Arlington creek bed for more than 100 years, refurbish it, and put it in the lobby of a new hotel they plan in Fort Worth.

That would surely create some buzz.

Problem is, nobody knows exactly where the locomotive is. The subject has been the topic of considerable debate in Arlington for decades, and some people question whether the engine might have been hauled away long ago by scrap hunters. And even if Casebier and his group find it, who knows what kind of shape it's in.

T&P #642 in the Texarkana Yard on a Sunday, one week before the wreck. Photo from Tom Marlin's Collection But Casebier said that won't stop him and his partners from looking for Texas & Pacific Engine No. 642, which fell into Village Creek during a flood in 1885.

Casebier, Tom Blanton and Halden Conner announced plans earlier this week to turn the historic Texas & Pacific Terminal building in downtown Fort Worth into a luxury hotel, with the vintage steam engine serving as the centerpiece. The T&P Terminal will be the Fort Worth terminus for Trinity Railway Express, a commuter train linking Fort Worth and Dallas, and an old train engine in the lobby would be the crowning touch.

"We already had plans on restoring a T&P engine and putting it on our property for display before we knew that thing was there," Casebier said. "It's an old engine that will be lost otherwise."

But Mark Davis, a spokesman for the Nebraska-based Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the old T&P line, said he believes the locomotive might stay lost.

This won't be the first time somebody has gone looking for it, and salvage efforts have been less successful than attempts to raise the Titanic. At least somebody found the Titanic.

"Our experience with this is that the folklore may be stronger than reality," Davis said. "Every five years or so, somebody wants to go down and look for it, but nobody has ever found the locomotive."

And if somebody does find it, they'd have to get permission from Union Pacific to go digging around their tracks.

There's also the problem that the locomotive might have sunk near a train trestle. That trestle doesn't exist anymore, but it was replaced decades ago by a new one.

"Our concern is with the safety of the right of way," Davis said. "If somebody finds the locomotive and wants to dig it up near the bridge, they definitely would have to coordinate with us on how to prevent the disruption of the soil around the piers that support the bridge."

This much about the locomotive's history is known. A train fell off a trestle that had been weakened by flood waters. The engine and two cars plunged into 12 feet of water. One person was killed. The mail and baggage cars were recovered, but the engine was left in the mud. Subsequent efforts to pull the train out failed and the engine eventually sank.

What's unclear is where the train sank, and whether it's still there today. Popular belief pins the location somewhere near what is now the junction of Division Street and Dottie Lynn Parkway on the city's West side.

But Jeffery Hanson, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington, believes the train might have sunk farther south of Division Street, closer to Pioneer Parkway.

"I was told that it was over at Pioneer Parkway, just before you get to Green Oaks," said Hanson, who has poked around, trying to find the engine. "There is a trestle that goes across. What I couldn't understand is how a train that size could have fallen in there. There would be some sort of mound."

Hanson thinks somebody dug up the train sometime in the last century and "took it away," possibly for sale as scrap metal.

But 95-year-old Bill Bardin is positive it's still there. He said his grandfather was one of the workers who tried to recover the train from the creek. He said any effort to remove the engine later would have been too hard to hide.

"The old Interurban run was running along there," Bardin said. "If there had been any recovery, people riding that Interurban would have seen it."

To get it out, according to Hanson, would require the use of something like a proton magnetometer. He described the device as being like a metal detector. It reads the earth's magnetic fields and locates items by the disruptions they cause in the fields.

"The only other way is to guess and start digging in a very systematic way," he said. "That's a crapshoot."

Casebier is prepared to spend $1 million to find the engine, recover it, restore it and put it in the hotel lobby. He's even sparked some interest from two documentary filmmakers who want to chronicle the recovery efforts.

"Hopefully it won't go too far past $1 million," Casebier said. "We're choking on $1 million to do it."

Staff writer Dan Piller contributed to this report.

Sean Wood, (817) 548-5523

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The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
Sean Wood