November 29, 2010 by wcobserver
On September 26, 1881, a few months after the town of Summit Home changed its name to Winslow, in honor of Frisco Railroad President Edward F. Winslow; work began on the Boston Mountain Tunnel, just south of the town. Though the first contractor was unable to complete the tunnel, the contract was reassigned in March of 1882 and cutting of the tunnel faces was completed in June of 1882. The tunnel was finally opened to rail traffic on August 30, 1882, and adorned with a large carved stone over each tunnel entrance bearing the date “1882.” Frisco reported that the Winslow Tunnel – one of three tunnels -was the “most expensive and difficult part of the work” in building the Arkansas Division railway to Van Buren.
The 1882 date stone from above the southern entrance to the tunnel, carved by German Mason Bill Fritch, currently sits at the pavilion across from Winslow City Hall, but many may not know that it hasn’t sat there long. The 4’9’’ X 2’9’’ X 18” date stone stood over the tunnel entrance for 85 years “As a monument to the ingenuity and hard work of those who designed and built the tunnel,” according to Vol. 11 No. 1 of All Aboard Magazine published in 1997. In August of 1967, Frisco initiated Operation Big Bore, which would enlarge the tunnel to accommodate modern railroading. This expansion required that the two 1882 date stones be removed.
The stone that sat at the north side of the tunnel was damaged when they attempted to remove the 1,500 pound sandstone; the south side stone survived the upheaval and ended up in James Omar Elliott’s yard in Missouri. “Jim.” as he was known, told All Aboard Magazine in 1997, “Where it landed when we unloaded it is where it has been for the past 28 years!” Though Jim passed away in 1999, he’s remembered fondly by former employee Joe Felin, member of the Board of Directors for the Railroad Historical Museum Inc of Springfield, MO. “A gentlemen and a scholar” is how Joe would best describe Jim Elliott, remembering him as a boss, co-worker, and then later, a customer. Jim was a WWII Veteran. A graduate of The Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy; he entered Frisco service in 1950, and eventually retired from the Burlington Northern/Frisco Railway. I was unable to substantiate what connection he may have had to Winslow, but it’s likely that he worked closely with the tunnel enlargement which allowed him access to take the stone home with him.
The Winslow tunnel date stone was eventually moved from Elliot’s farm to the courtyard of The Frisco Railroad Museum Inc. of Springfield, Missouri. The Frisco Railroad Museum was founded by Alan Schmitt, who was present for the stone’s removal from Elliot’s farm, along with Stan Weddle, the museum’s project director. Rumor is that Schmitt had a knack for finding hidden treasures and bringing them to the Museum for all to enjoy. The museum housed the date stone for approximately 5 years before closing its doors and selling off its inventory in 2002. The Frisco Building, LLC purchased a collection of artifacts from the defunct museum in order to keep the items in Springfield. Louis Griesemer, former museum Advisory Board member and partner at The Frisco Building said, “When the museum closed they needed to sell the collection to pay off their debt. Rather than see the collection dispersed, we (The Frisco Building) opted to purchase as much as we could afford.” The rumor around Winslow is that Louis himself owned the stone; this is incorrect according to Louis. The Frisco Building, for which Louis is a partner, actually purchased the collection from the defunct museum. “I thought it was pretty cool to touch a piece of history,” Louis said of his time with the date stone. “We are very interested in preserving bits of history, but believe that those with the strongest connections will do the best job of preservation.”
Beth Breed, then a newcomer to Winslow, started the ball rolling to bring the date stone back to Winslow without even knowing it. Beth was flying from Minneapolis back to Arkansas when she struck up a conversation with the man seated next to her. The man, who worked for the Rogers Historical Museum in Rogers, knew Louis Griesemer, who was involved with the purchase of the stone from The Frisco Railroad Museum Inc. Being new to the area, Beth didn’t know a lot about the stone but she thought it would be important to Winslow residents, so she passed on the gentleman’s information to Barbara Ashbaugh of Winslow City Hall. “Denny Luke has been very helpful to the Winslow Museum” Barbara said, “He went out to Springfield and talked to the man about getting the date stone back.” Denny recalls, “Louis was a very nice fellow, he took us on a tour of the museum and underground cave.”
Chapter member of the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad and Passenger Train Manager, Brenda Brown, was contacted by the City of Winslow to see if the railroad would be interested in carrying the stone back to Winslow. Mr. Griesemer wanted to ride the railroad to Winslow and return the stone but the A&M Railroad was too afraid to transport the stone by rail for fear of the nearly 130 year old stone being damaged, but they did agree to transport the stone by truck. According to Barbara, Mr. Griesemer asked that the city provide an official written request to have the stone back, Denny adds that Louis was simply “trying to make sure that the stone didn’t fall into private hands,” and so the city gladly provided the official letter.
Though Mr. Griesemer was unable to return the stone himself by rail, on November 14, 2007 Winslow City Hall’s efforts paid off when a truck from the A & M Railroad went to Springfield, MO to pick up the date stone and bring it back to its proper home, Winslow. Bill Fritch, the engraver of the date stone, was Great Uncle to Winslow resident Carl Fritch, who remembers being happy to see the stone return “home.” “It was great having the stone retuned to Winslow; it should have never been taken away from here.”
At nearly 130 years old, this stone has survived a major upheaval from it resting place of 85 years, spent nearly 30 years in the yard of a retired Frisco employee, and a short 5 years in a museum in Springfield, then moved to the Frisco Building, only to return home to Winslow after 40 years of travelling.
Though the date stone’s return to Winslow may have little significance to anyone not directly involved with Winslow or the Frisco Railway, it tells a deeper story if you’re willing to listen. It tells the tale of too many names to be named in this paper; the story of every man that lifted the stone, the German Mason, Bill Fritch that carved the stone, the men who gave back-breaking labor to the building of the railroad, and the dozens of lives lost alongside the railroad due to smallpox. The next time you pass by the stone, remember to take a moment to remember a piece of Winslow’s past, a piece of history that will forever tell its story, no matter where it lands.