Iron Icon: Historic train 'steams' out of Springfield for new Branson home

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo Drivers on Campbell Avenue may have done a double-take on Thursday afternoon. That's when an historic steam train was being trucked out of town on a journey to its new home in Branson.

The Cannonball Express, which was built in 1919, is owned by the Jim D. Morris family. It sat next to the Morris Oil Company office on South Campbell Avenue for years. But, by Thursday afternoon, it was gone. After being hoisted onto a flatbed trailer by a crane, the engine was trucked to the World's Largest Toy Museum in Branson.

"This was an opportunity to put it right on Highway 76 where millions and millions of visitors can enjoy it every year," explained Rob Batchman, Director of Sales and Marketing at World's Largest Toy Museum Complex.

The 97-year old steam locomotive was built by the H.K. Porter Company, and is one of only a handful remaining of it's kind. It spent most of it's career hauling coal in Tennessee before being acquired by Jim D. Morris in Springfield. Those connected to the project say another thing that makes this locomotives so unusual is it was built to operate on narrow gauge lines, with rails spaced closer together than standard railroads.

"It is not only a historical locomotive and antique, but it is almost a relic because of the small number of these that are still in existence," stated Ron Newman, member of the Taney County Transportation Advisory Board and a Branson Realtor with CJR Carol Jones Realtors.

Once arriving at its new home, the locomotive was set up with help from local volunteers and railroad enthusiasts.

"We had already set the rail up...had the rails set over the weekend. And, that was an experience in itself," explained Larry Blaha of the Roark Valley Modular Railroad Club."

The Missouri & Northern Arkansas Railroad, which operates through Branson, donated the track the Cannonball Express now rests upon.

"It was 35 feet of pure misery," laughed Roy Doerrer, President of the Roark Valley Modular Railroad Club and former employee of the Katy Railroad. "We have decided those guys that built the railroads across this country were a tough bunch. Because we did 35 feet, and they did thousands of miles. And, we were finished.

This engine will be seen from the up and coming multi-million dollar project to transform Highway 76 with a streetscape. Planners hope the roadway becomes a new icon in itself.

"This is exactly one of the things we needed here on the strip, and I am so happy it is here now," said Harvey Lane, another member of Roark Valley Modular Railroad Club.

Blaha explained, "The face of Branson is changing and people want to be more interactive. They want to engage in what is going on in the town."

"Steam trains are something that many of our kids or even my generation have never experienced...for sure have never sat inside," Batchman said.

The train is set to be ready in a few days. Visitors will then be able to climb aboard.

Newman stated, "This is a major historical tribute to rail transportation for Southwest Missouri with over 8 million tourists a year now having an opportunity to view this historic locomotive on the Branson “theater strip”.

Doerrer said, "The best part to me is the kids get to come and they will get to see a big steam engine and that is what its all about. Kids love them."

In addition to the loan of the locomotive, the Jim D. Morris family donated a 1930s era 15-ton mining power shovel. That equipment is being displayed next to the train engine.