The National Railroad Museum: Tales of travelers past

img_0674When someone mentions the word train, two very different images pop into my head.  First, there are the trains I’ve learned about from my history classes, those bold engines venturing freshly laid track with a load of optimistic passengers setting across the disappearing frontier.  Of course, secondly, I see the slow lumbering freight trains that become obstacles and delays during my travels along city and country roads.  The national railroad museum, although not quite being what I expected, encompassed both.

I was in the midst of a six-day stretch at work, yet, I wanted to keep to my goal of writing about one destination a week, tough duty.  I’ve heard great things about the National Railroad Museum and it is literally about a ten minute drive from my house.  Consequently, those were the merits that earned it the topic for this weeks blog.

So, waking up around quarter of eleven in the morning, as I had to work at 2 in the afternoon,  I threw on some clothes and headed towards the West side of Green Bay.  I admit, when I drove through the entrance, I was surprised.  I anticipated a theme in the courtyard and parking lot that spoke to the nature of railroads, I’m not sure why.  However, it was quaint and could have been the entrance to any local business, except for what appeared to be an unattended guard shack poised between the exit and entrance.

When I entered, the lobby was of a quintessential museum tone, a fairly sizeable expanse housing some modest but interesting exhibits which were cased in glass.  I made my way to the gift shop, where I was greeted by Susan.  She collected my ten dollars and urged me to the theatre to watch a film, which already began.  The film was a classically narrated piece on the museum’s prized Exhibit, the Union Pacific steam engine known as ‘Big Boy’, said to be the world’s largest steam engine.

After the show, I proceeded to an interesting exhibit I had not anticipated.  China from different modes of transport  were cased in glass and on display.  It is there to depict the passenger experience, an interesting bit of history.  However, amidst the china, some from the airship Hindenburg, I regarded a novel dining car menu the peak of the collection.

It is now that it hits me, as I  glance over a placard that explains that the U.S.  passenger trains’ last year of profit was 1946,  the second world war seemed to mark the change of the economic and technological landscape of America, and passenger trains were victims of that change.  Dwight D. Eisenhower steered our country down a new path as he initiated the interstate-highway system.  The freedom of the automobile and advances in aircraft made the rough riding railcar a thing of the past.

The next feature, the Baur Drumhead Gallery, which exhibits lighted signs designed for the rear of passenger trains, continues the tale of the passenger experience.  The signs displayed must have once drawn attention and esteem from many envious onlookers, as they spied the trains passing through their towns.

I leave the drumhead  exhibit behind and enter the Lefenstey Center, home of the main attractions.  There are some very interesting exhibits here, and no two are alike. As I investigate the fully enclosed pavilion, I am delighted and stimulated by these fully restored relics of travel.

I must admit, although the ‘Big Boy’ is massive, enticing me to have my picture taken next to such an imposing vehicle, the other exhibits hold my interest longer.  Sure, the size of the ‘Big Boy’ draws attention, being 16 feet high, 11 feet wide, 85 feet long and weighing, get this, an astounding 1,250,000 pounds, but I’m drawn to the passenger trains and cars.

The Irony that lies in the museum, having invested much effort in highlighting the history of passenger trains, is that it exhibits Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command train, named for the very man who led to the industry’s demise.  This train, a military passenger vehicle, served him as general while he commanded the U.S. armed forces during WWII.

As I peruse the exhibits, the most interesting engine I find, at least the one that leaves me pondering,  is the GG1 electric locomotive.  The max speed was listed at 100 mph and they were in service from 1935 until 1983.    I didn’t know anyone had an inkling as to what ‘going green’ meant in 1935,(ha ha)  yet, the electric train was invented far earlier, 1879 to be exact.  They were also used as freight trains, purchased by  the Pennsylvania Railroad and designed by GE they survived many change of hands till the NJ transit scrapped them, 16 survive in museums.

Of course my favorite exhibit is the Pullman passenger car.  Everything about the car screams antique from the gaudy shade of green on the walls to the slack fold out beds.  I’m recollecting movies I’ve enjoyed from Bond to Sherlock Holmes, as before now, passenger trains seemed to  only exist on a screen- I’m not from a foreign country or a big city.  Today, I’m walking through a train car where men, like myself, traveled with their families for whatever purpose they deemed fit.

Along with the exhibit of the Pullman passenger car follows the story of the Pullman Porter.  Mostly all porters, known uniformly as George, were African-Americans.  Their plight for proper treatment formed the first U.S. minority labor union, instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement.

There is more here, as I wander through box cars and passenger cars alike.  It is a tribute to American ingenuity.  These were once the seeds and the blood pumping through the arteries of the Industrial Revolution.  Carrying freight to and from factories and bringing settlers to booming towns, trains were the vehicle that helped the U.S develop from a Civil War torn country to a recognized industrial power.

As I leave the Lenfestey Center,  I find a small silver passenger train, left Idle today.  If I was here on the weekend this train would bolster the passenger car experience, as it would carry passengers over the Museum grounds on a short oval track.

The last museum exhibition area is the McCormick pavilion.  It is huge and there are a ton of  different railcar and Engines available for viewing.  From the General Motor’s Aerotrain Prototype to caboose.  Yet, its gloomy, being poorly lit, and the exhibits appear scuffed and worn from weather, as the Pavilion is exposed to the elements. I’m actually disappointed.

As I leave, I realize that what I imagined this place would resemble and what actually was featured were different.  I expected rail signs and tools for laying track to be housed here.  However the only ties I found were those on tracks in the McCormick pavilion and what  lie on the perimeter of the museum grounds.

Instead, besides the enormous freight hauler aptly named ‘Big Boy’, the Museum highlighted the Passenger train experience.  That is a plus, because it is the most romantic portion of the history of the railroad,  even if the Box car’s did remind me of the transients that illegally  hitched rides in the early portion of the twentieth century.  My imagination saw life at a different angle today, picturing life without our modern cars and road systems.

Trains are a vital part of America’s past, check it out!

The price of admission is $10 for and adult, $12 if you care to ride the train, Seniors recieve a dollor off for both fees.  Children are admitted for $7.50 for the museum and $9.50 with the train ride added.  If they are under the age of two admission is free.  The museum is open 9-5 monday through saturday, sunday is 11-5.  January through march the museum is closed on mondays

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