Railroad artifacts tell story of how trains built Atlanta

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 23, 2018

By Jeff Martin

Associated Press

ATLANTA — A historic steam locomotive restored at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer is helping tell the story of how railroads have fueled Atlanta’s growth since its earliest days.

The Atlanta History Center is using many railroad artifacts, a new exhibit hall and actors playing the roles of historic railroad figures to show how railroads forged the city into one of the South’s most important transportation and business hubs.

The newly restored 1856 locomotive “Texas” is paired with the Zero Mile Post, which marked the terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad and Atlanta’s epicenter. The 800-pound marker was recently moved from downtown Atlanta to the history center in the city’s Buckhead neighborhood.

“Locomotion: Railroads and the Making of Atlanta” opened this month. It aims to tell the story of Atlanta — and how railroads shaped the future life of the city and the region, said Sheffield Hale, the history center’s president and CEO.

“This locomotive, particularly when paired with the Zero Mile Post, is our origin story,” Hale said. “This is why we’re here.”

“We’re here because Western & Atlantic Railroad chose this to be the spot,” he added. “This is the origin story. This is our Planet Krypton.”

The locomotive is lighted at night and can be seen from the nearby sidewalk and street through expansive windows — part of Hale’s broader vision to connect the history center with the surrounding community and make it more accessible and inviting.

The Texas itself has been designed with stairs, so visitors can climb into it, touch it and see firsthand how it a steam locomotive worked.

“The fact that they can get into the locomotive and see the coal, look into the engine box and do all that, we think is going to make it just pop in terms of history,” Hale said.

The Texas made history during the “Great Locomotive Chase” of the Civil War. U.S. Army troops northwest of Atlanta commandeered a locomotive named the General in 1862. They headed northwest toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, destroying bridges and parts of the rail line along the way.

Confederate forces hopped aboard the Texas to chase the stolen train, eventually catching it.

Before going on display in Atlanta, the Texas underwent an 18-month restoration by Steam Operations Corp. at the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

In its permanent home in the history center’s new Rollins Gallery, the architecture is reminiscent of old train stations and train sheds and includes several railroad signs and a passenger bench that dates back more than a century. Also on display are remnants of two of Atlanta’s main train stations: A 1905 bronze building dedication plaque, an operating signal from Atlanta’s Terminal Station, and the “Track 1” sign from Atlanta’s 1930 Union Station.

The artifacts are meant to tell the broad story of railroading in Atlanta, said Jackson McQuigg, the history center’s vice president of properties.

Museum theater performances will also help tell the story, he said. They will feature performances by actors playing the roles of historic railroad figures that include pioneering woman brakeman Gertie Stewart and Southern Railway Chairman W. Graham Claytor Jr.