After the Public Belt Railroad Commission’s denial of LASTA’s use of their track, one of the Commission members suggested that we investigate Norfolk Southern
‘s short line to Braithwaite, LA. We explored this idea and found much enthusiasm from people in the area, especially State Senator Lynn Dean. Our train’s run could originate at Jackson Barracks, stop at the Chalmette Battlefield, and proceed to St. Bernard State Park, where riders could disembark and have a picnic in beautiful surroundings before the train’s return (the entire trip would encompass 15 miles).
In the process of this planning, we got to meet and befriend David Fowler, then superintendent of Norfolk Southern in New Orleans. While Norfolk Southern has a “no steam” policy, Mr. Fowler and LASTA spent hours considering the possibility of LASTA leasing the short line. Another business plan was originated by Lisa Amoss and a student from the Tulane University Freeman School of Business which indicated the feasibility of such a weekend run.
This whole venture had to be discarded due to a new plant opening in Braithwaite which required rail service from Norfolk Southern on the short line. In spite of Mr. Fowler’s urging us not to give up, LASTA was particularly down and out during this time. It seemed that another noble effort to revitalize the “745” was going to be overcome by insurmountable obstacles. Then the miracle of St. Michael’s!!!!
LASTA approached Sister Lillian, one of the nuns who devoted their lives to building and sustaining St. Michael’s Special School. We described our dream to her and then told of all the setbacks along the way. She gently suggested that we go to the chapel and prayed with us for the answer to our stalemate. As we were leaving, she said that God’s will would be done and gave us some Lourdes water.
Two weeks later, LASTA was notified by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development that its application for the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) was not only found to be eligible but approved in its first phase. Sister Lillian has since passed on, but we know that we continue to have a saint in heaven praying for us. St. Michael’s School will always be one of our beneficiaries in our future charity runs for kids. At first, we were so excited we had no idea of the tunnel of madness we were entering – joyous nightmares!!
Everyone at DOTD was very pleasant and well-meaning, but they all sang (as in the chorus in a Greek tragedy) the same song: “This has never been done before. No steam engine has ever been restored with enhancement funds. We are familiar with roads, bridges, old railroad depots, bike paths, etc., but not steam engines.” They loved the proposal and LASTA was fortunate when George Gele was appointed as our project coordinator. George is a man with the wisdom and patience of the ancient pyramids. He convinced us not to jump in the River Styx when obstacles were placed in our path.
Our first hurdle was, in retrospect, the easiest. LASTA’s project description had to be mailed to all state and federal officials and agencies to invite them to voice concerns about the project’s environmental impact. We received not a single objection. God bless. The second hurdle was more complicated and absorbed our time and energy for the remainder of 1999 and 2000.