Somewhere along the 2,180 miles he trudged over the Appalachian Trail during this past year, Bruce Brown stops to sit on a tree stump; pulls off his well-worn shoes; rubs his weary, beat-up dogs and wonders what’s going on with his beloved Ole 745 steam train engine sitting on the tracks back in Louisiana.
At just about the same moment, a family of four from Avoyelles Parish peers out of a sixth floor window of the organ transplant unit of Ochsner Foundation Hospital on Jefferson Highway. The patriarch of the family, a yam farmer in his 70s, impresses his kinfolk with a story about the train that was viewed in the recent movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “That’s Ole 745 down there. That’s the same train in the movie, right down there, right across the highway nestled between them two buildings,” the farmer says. “The movie folks paid the owners $30,000 to use that train for just a few seconds filmin’. Come next summer, Ole 745 is gonna be in another movie. This time them Hollywood folks is gonna pay ’em $150,000.”
Every person standing in the window is duly impressed, but they have no idea that Ochsner, which owns the two buildings across the street, has asked the Louisiana Steam Train Association, which owns Ole 745, to find a new home because the hospital is expanding and needs the space.
But Bruce Brown, up near the Maine state line, is pushing his feet back into his shoes and he knows it. He also know that Aaron Broussard, the former president of Jefferson Parish, who once pushed through $100,000 in funding for the train’s refurbishing and who promised him, “Ole 745 will never be without a home,” has fallen from power and is no longer a factor in the fate of the train.
Most New Orleanians remember the old steam engine that sat in the rear of Audubon Park near Tchoupitoulas Street as an iconic if odd monument to another era (if to nothing else), slowly falling victim to the ravages of rust, weather and vandals from 1956 when it was donated to the park by the Algiers train yard that built it until ’84 when Brown headed up the salvation effort to restore the train to its past glory.
“Everybody loved that train and every person I’ve talked to has some memory of it from the 30 years it was behind the park,” Brown says. “One guy told me, ‘Yeah, me and my chick got into the engine late one afternoon and we …’ Well, I’ll leave that story for another time.”
The story that Brown does tell is how soldiers coming home to Louisiana from World War I were put to work in the Algiers shops building steam engines. He goes on to tell of one of those trains, Engine 745, built from spare parts in 1921 and working hard until it was done in by diesel powered engines and sent packing as a donation to Audubon Park.
Over the years as it crumbled into a heap of rust, a group known as the Old Kenner Railroad Association was only too happy to take the by-now eyesore away as New Orleans prepared for the 1984 World’s Fair, and Audubon Park continued to expand outward.
A few years after that, Brown, who had a “lifelong love of the old steam engine trains,” pulled together the Louisiana Steam Train Association (LSTA).
“A few like-minded people got together at my place over coffee and doughnuts at first, then poor boys and beer later.
Before long we got so many people involved. We were determined to return Ole 745 to its glory days. Around the year 2000 is when we really started getting together. We got an article or two in the paper, and things really started to build up. But you don’t just raise a few bucks and go in and patch up an old engine and fire her up. We had ultrasounds done and we got Avondale [shipyard] to help us determine how thick the wall of the engine was to see if we needed a new boiler or not. Nothing was left to chance because if we fire the engine up and this thing blows, people could die. This is really a bomb and you have to be very, very careful. The Federal Railroad Administration comes in and checks everything out.
“I was really involved in this thing in the beginning,” Brown says of those early days of the LSTA. We were 501C3 [tax exempt]; we had a charter and bylaws. Eventually, we got a $1.2 million federal grant. Then we got that $100,000 from Jefferson Parish for the business car and for that they [Jefferson Parish] got use of it for 10 years. The City of New Orleans was going to get involved, but they didn’t. We have the ‘745 Club’ where for a donation of $745 you become a lifetime member. We even had 745 listed on the National Register of Historic Places. My wife thought I was nuts. I was totally involved in every facet of it. But don’t get me wrong, a lot of other people were just as involved. This wasn’t just a labor of love. This was love. I was president (of the LSTA) for 11 years. I kept asking somebody to take over the presidency, but nobody would come forward. All the members thought I was a dictator – I drove them hard to get it done. But they appreciated it. I had to make all these decisions. But eventually I knew the time had come. I was ready, and they were ready to move this thing from a dictatorship to at least a messy democracy.” He continues, “So a number of new people got involved. Right now we have maybe 300 members of the LSTA, but really only about 20 or some really come out on a regular basis. They come for things like the ‘Steel Train Festival’ or the ‘Blue Grass Festival’ like we had a while back. Every October we bring the steam trains back to the park … on the fly behind Audubon Park.”
He may no longer be president (or dictator) of the LSTA, but Bruce Brown’s enthusiasm for the old train that could – and did – is as high-powered and infectious as when he was a kid growing up in Carrollton; a kid whose father’s idea of a good time was to haul his son onto the ferry to ogle the majestic old black and silver steam engines in the train yards and round houses of Algiers.
“I remember as a kid, I lived on Deckbar [Avenue] right at Jefferson Highway, and the little Bisso switcher engine would be going down the tracks. I got so excited over that. I just couldn’t get over that. And I remember the steam trains made in Algiers. There were 11 of them and they were called the ‘11 Ladies.’ They wound up worth thousands of dollars in scrap metal. I always found that so sad.”
Bruce Brown finds great comfort and satisfaction in realizing the role he and others played in saving at least one of them. Saving one from the scrap heap and for posterity; for kids who otherwise would never know what a steam engine was – or is.
Back nestled on tracks alongside the building at 1401 Jefferson Highway, Old 745 is being fired up for its once a month rousting to keep its innards sharp and free from the ravages of dust and rust. Ole 745 will chug in place for a few minutes and blow a low whistle just to make sure everything is still copacetic in its inner regions. All the windows on all the floors of Ochsner Hospital facing Jefferson Highway will fill with folks appreciative of the brief show. Men and women with more tubes and wires dangling from them than the international space station will smile for just a moment and relive a better past; and thousands of miles away in an unknown burg in a forest in Maine, Bruce Brown will decide it’s time to turn around and head for home. He may no longer be president or dictator but there’s still work to be done, like finding a new home for Ole 745.