Nearly 100 years ago a worn-out steam railroad engine was discarded by a phosphate mine and buried in mining debris. This past Friday, nearly two years after it was found by Mosaic workers, the resurrected engine hulk was on display at the Mulberry Phosphate Museum as a monument to mining days of old.
The 21-ton hulk, found on land between Bartow and Mulberry just north of State Road 60, was unearthed by Mosaic workers who were tending to abandoned Mulberry phosphate property. They found the relic buried under some 20 feet of detritus and dirt.
At Friday’s brief unveiling ceremony, Museum Director Chelsea Young said the exhibit would add to the museum’s inventory and show visitors how important mining has been and will be to the west Polk community.
“This is just another piece to add to what phosphate mining has done for Polk County and how long its been an integral part of our history,” she said.
Finding the relic was the easy part, explained Mosaic spokesman Callie Neslund,
“Getting it here was a challenge,” Neslund said. “But it finally made it to the end of the tracks.”
Neslund explained that the buried 1880 engine belongs to the state and everything about it had to be cleared through the Department of Environmental Regulations and the Department of State’s Historical Resources Division.
“Since we knew it was a historical artifact, we knew we had to have the State Historical Resources Department involved in anything we did,” Neslund told the small group gathered.
She drew laughs when she explained how a Mosaic crew called her that Saturday nearly two years ago and told her they had unearthed what they thought was a cannon.
“Of course, we know now it was the train engine.”
Historians believe the engine was built about 1880 for passenger service by the Manchester Locomotive Works in New Hampshire. How it wound up buried in Polk County will remain a mystery, because no records from any earlier owner(s) could be located.
Local phosphate mining buff Richard Fifer said he believed the engine was used to switch rail cars from track to track at the defunct mine until the 1920s and then buried. Young said she believed it had to have been buried before World War II or it would have been used as scrap metal to support the war effort.
The engine was stripped of most of its parts including brass fittings, steam gauges and even its builder’s plate before it was buried, both Young and Neslund said. The wooden platform that would have housed both the engineer and his crew is long gone.
“What’s left is preserved in the mud and soil it was buried in,” Young said.
Also helping to preserve the engine is a covered shelter constructed by CF Industries. The track segment on which the engine sits was donated by C.J. Bridges Railroad Construction Co.
“This is an extremely rare find,” said former Polk County Historical Library Director Joe Spann when the engine was discovered nearly two years ago. “There are only three or four of these engines in the country and they also are in museums. This one really takes the cake.”
Those gathered at Friday’s dedication ceremony included Mulberry Mayor George Hatch, Mulberry Commissioner Collins Smith and Polk County Commissioner Todd Dantzler.