Helena holds dedication of historic railroad marker

Published 4:26 pm Tuesday, August 29, 2023

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By DONALD MOTTERN | Staff Writer

 HELENA – The Helena Historic Preservation Committee (HHPC), in close cooperation with the city of Helena and the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, held a dedication that marked the restoration of a historic railroad mile post on Sunday, Aug. 27.

Several months ago, while walking on the Five Mile Creek Greenway Trail System in the Gardendale area with her son Alex, Linda Wurstner noticed several restored mile posts along the trail that was once the Louisville & Nashville railroad line. These posts reminded her of a similar site she was also aware of, that being a mile post sitting, largely forgotten, right off of Hillsboro Trail next entrance to Lee Springs Park.

Freshly aware of the historical significance and knowing the post’s dilapidated state, Linda and the Helena Historic Preservation Committee set forth with intentions of a restoration that would bring the marker back to its former glory. In the process of doing so, they would begin preserving a small piece of the now gone Helena & Blocton branch line of the Birmingham Mineral Railroad, which was itself a subsidiary of the Louisville & Nashville (L&N) Railroad.

“It was officially filed for abandonment in 1982 from what we can tell,” said Jason Parham of the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum. “But, we have a map that shows a proposed lease from the L&N to the Heart of Dixie Railroad Club, as it (the museum) was called back then, in 1967. We think if they were considering doing a lease of the line to a historical club like that, the likelihood is that all traffic, for all intents and purposes, had probably ceased by then.”

This branch line ran exactly through where Hillsboro Trail runs today. While it is unclear of the exact date the rail line fell into disuse, it was first turned into its current form of a paved walking trail in 2008 as part of the Hillsboro housing development and more of the line was subsequently incorporated into the trail over the following years.

After approaching the city of Helena and Mayor Puckett with their plans, the HHPC was able to remove two nearby trees that posed an imminent danger to the mile post’s structural integrity.

“I told them, ‘You guys have to get rid of them now, because they will destroy the marker.’” Parham said. “If the trees grew they would have put pressure (on the post) and destroyed it.”

The restoration then involved the valued effort of HHPC member Shannon Hollon, who hauled buckets of water from the nearby creek to begin the careful cleaning process and the removal of decades of dirt, mold and mildew from the historic post.

The post, originally a white colored concrete, had irreparably faded from its original color after more than a century in the elements. Therefore, the decision was made for Hollon to also paint the mile post a crisp white that resembled its original appearance as closely as possible.

During the restoration process, the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum in Calera was also brought in to help with the restoration. From here, museum members Jason Parham and Alan Dismukes were able to perform research and map studies that determined the number that once appeared on the mile post.

The Museum was also in possession, after similar past restorations, of the necessary stencils that could replicate the originals with absolute historical accuracy.

Thanks to Dismuke’s help, mile post 409 once again carries the numbers that give it its name and identification, and it does so in the original horizontal styling that the post would have originally carried, a format that was later phased out in favor of the easier to read vertical format seen on later posts.

Understanding that a restoration would not be entirely worth it without the public being aware of its significance, Wurstner and Butch Botters, another HHPC member, utilized their research and gathering of historic information in the creation of a plaque and had it installed with aid from the city.

It is their hope that the post will now stand for the next century to come and after, just as it has for the past 100 years, serving as a marker of Helena’s history.