The city of Tyler and a nonprofit organization have big plans to take an overgrown property and turn it into a railroad themed park.
Last year, the Cotton Belt Historical Society Inc. purchased an abandoned-looking piece of property of Line Street for $10,000.
Glenn Wilkins, the group’s vice president, said the plan is to take the 60-foot by 145-foot property and turn it into a railroad-themed park. The space is a short walking distance from the Cotton Belt Depot Museum and directly behind the city’s planned Innovation Pipeline, off Oakwood Street.
The vision, includes adding two to three rail cars, playground equipment, a water feature, a butterfly garden and picnic tables.
The hope is it becomes a spot for children’s birthday parties.
“I’ve been told our situation is like a ‘pie in the sky,’” Wilkins said. “My comment to that is, ‘I love pie.’ We can get this work done.”
The plan is growing momentum.
In late September, the city and Keep Tyler Beautiful accepted a $20,000 grant from Lowes to complete the first phase of the project. The Keep America Beautiful and Lowes Community Partner Grant will help the entities do some dirt work, correct drainage issues on the property and purchase picnic tables, said Stephanie Franklin, managing director of culture, recreation and tourism.
The project is dependent on grants and donations, and there is no set timeline for its completion.
“One of the eligible expenditures is a parklet - a downtown lot that you want to make into a green space. This is a dilapidated and overgrown lot. We can really improve this area.”
The dream for the railroad society is turning into a collaborative effort. Mike Butler, with Butler Architects, created a cursory site plan for the city’s application to the Lowes Grant.
Smith County Jail inmates helped clear the site of debris and a standing wall is set to come down next week.
The grant funds have to be spent by the end of December, Ms. Franklin said.
The entities have applied for a grant through Union Pacific to get the second phase, which includes moving rail cars onto the property. That process would include cranes to place the cars.
The city will know in February if it will be awarded that grant.
Once the cars are in place, landscaping can begin.
Wilkins said the Cotton Belt Historical Society hopes to place at least two cars on the property.
The railcars were donated, but will take work and volunteers to fully refurbish.
The first is an old postal service car. The car currently is on private property in the Flint area and in good condition, Wilkins said.
The car is ideal for children to play on.
“It is a fairly open on the inside,” he said. “It still has the cubbyholes for the sorting the mail and the mail bag holders. It even still has the catcher on the outside of the car. They caught the mail in a bag on the fly - they didn’t have to stop. From point A to B, they sorted the mail.”
A business car was also donated to the historical society. That car will have to be gutted and restored, Wilkins said. Once finished, it would likely only be open for tours. It also has a fair distance to travel from its current home in San Antonio.
The car has three bedrooms and a bathroom, plus a servant’s quarters, Wilkins said. Railroad executives used it to travel to various meetings.
“It’s 90 feet long, and the whole back of it is about 10-foot by 12-foot living room, if you will,” Wilkins said. “It’s actually an observation room and has a view of the track at the rear of the train.”
The train actually traveled the Cotton Belt during its heyday.
The Cotton Belt Line was started in 1867 as the “Tyler Tap.” It was a short line from Tyler to Big Sandy to transport cotton and other agricultural goods. From there, goods could go to the East Coast and everywhere in-between, Wilkins said.
The line was abandoned in 1964, he said.
There also is a possibility of adding a fully-restored caboose to the park. That addition isn’t definite.
Wilkins said the car belongs to the historical society but a sister branch of the organization has it on display in Arkansas.
HOW TO DONATE
Resident can donate to the railroad historical society’s efforts.
In-kind donations also are sought.
The organization is a nonprofit organization with 501©3 status.
Donations can be made in person to the Cotton Belt Depot, 210 E. Oakwood St. They also can be mailed to P.O. Box 6236, Tyler, Texas, 75711. Donations should designate they are intended for the park.