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Engine No. 209 began as a locomotive for last Russian czar

Gainesville’s humble engine that sits at the corner of Jesse Jewell Parkway and West Academy Street is getting a bit of attention.

Featured on the main page of the city’s new website, a fun fact boasts that Engine No. 209 was once built for a czar in Russia.

“The steam locomotive was built in America for the czar of Russia, but the order was canceled because of the 1917 Russian Revolution,” said Catiel Felts, the city’s director of communication and tourism.

“The Gainesville Midland Railroad was formed in 1904 from the Gainesville, Jefferson, and Southern Railroad and ended as part of the Atlantic Coast Line.”

The last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, abdicated the throne following the February Revolution of 1917.

Nicknamed Bloody Nicholas because of Bloody Sunday and the anti-Semitic attacks under his reign, he approved the Russian mobilization of August 1914 and the country’s first step into World War I.

After the order cancellation, Engine 209 joined Gainesville’s Midland line. The last steam locomotive ran from Athens to Gainesville on Sept. 19, 1959. Officials assume one of the two engines used during the run was 209, Felts said.

“About 550 rail fans paid admission for the round trip and many hundreds stood along the right of way or cruised along in their cars on adjacent roads following the train,” she said.

Most of the Gainesville Midland locomotives have been preserved in museums or in communities, such as the Engine 209 Park that features the engine, a coal car and a red caboose with benches on West Academy Street. The park is part of the Adopt-A-Park program through the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

“The engine in Gainesville … was vandalized in the usual ways and then largely ignored by most of the citizens for many years,” said Dave Lathrop, who wrote about his 2004 restoration of the engine for Railway Preservation News in April 2005.

“In 1991, it was moved from its original display location along with a steel Seaboard Air Line caboose and a Southern baggage car and put on display at a traffic-jammed intersection,” he wrote in the article. “A group of local citizens built a small railroad museum in the baggage car, did a paint job on everything and manned it on weekends for awhile.

“But after these benefactors burned out, nothing much happened for more years … the caboose became overflow accommodation for a local brothel, and at least one person set up housekeeping in the tender tank.”

After redevelopment in Gainesville and a Tennessee railroad museum made a proposal at a city council meeting, officials decided to clean up the engine.

The project started Oct. 25, 2004, and ended April 21, 2005, involving general landscaping, asbestos removal, fabrication of new jackets for the boiler and cylinders, reinstallation of removed parts and repairing damaged pieces.

Workers also cleaned out the firebox and coal car for the first time since the train was decommissioned. Professional sign painters created authentic lettering based on photographs when the train was in operation. All wooden parts on the train were replaced and new Plexiglas was installed in the engine cab and some in the caboose.

“This project worked well thanks to the unusually high community support and interest,” Lathrop said.

“Our volunteer help essentially doubled our work force at no additional cost. The local businesses that provided in-kind donations of very high quality saved thousands of dollars … were it not for this support, only a bare bones patch and paint job could have been afforded.”

The $75,000 project has been the most extensive renovation of Engine 209.

“The most gratifying things from my perspective were the visits we got from ordinary citizens who had either been watching as they drove by or seen newspaper or TV articles,” Lathrop said. “One older gentleman, who worked on the London and North Eastern before immigrating and working for decades as a truck driver, had tears in his eyes as he told tales of steam.”

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