Everybody loves trains, don’t they? Particularly the old ones; the chug-chug, clickety-clack, smoke-stacked steam locomotives of days gone by. Historically, they were the 19th/early-20th centuries’ metallic and metaphorical embodiment of a still-young nation’s open possibilities – of the nation’s vast expanse of wide-open spaces offered in panoramic view through large windows. Trains continued to serve our need for traversing both large geographical and psychological spaces during much of the 20th century as they gradually transformed into streamlined speeding diesel- and electric-powered bullets. Today in the 21st, they still evoke a romantic sense of travel. And is there any sound in the world more deliciously bittersweet, more powerfully poignant than that of a train whistle’s fading clear-toned wail as it recedes into the distance?
“As long as there have been trains, there have been people who have loved trains,” states Mike Fleming, president of Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum Inc. and superintendent of the Bluff City Division of the Southeastern Region of the National Model Railroad Association. “At the Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum we see them every day, young or old, black or white, rich or poor, PhD’s or those educated in the school of life, all different yet all having one thing in common – they all love trains. The best part of this romance of the rails is that it means something different to different people. To some it means building models, for others it’s watching trains or photographing them. For still others, it’s riding trains. Many like the history. Take a moment and pay attention to the train going by, go visit a model railroad or a railroad museum and you may become a train lover too.”
And the other good thing about railroad museums is that visiting them often includes the opportunity to ride an excursion train and/or to experience a historic train depot or fancy terminal station. Indeed, there are some excellent excursion trains all over the South and beyond. Some are included here.
Revelers of the rail don’t have to go far out of Atlanta proper to enjoy a good railway museum. The Southeastern Railway Museum has about 90 items of rolling stock including historic Pullman cars and classic steam locomotives on a 35-acre site in Duluth. The museum is currently operating one of the locomotives and four passenger cars on a 1,500 foot track. The private rail car once used by President Warren G. Harding is among the museum’s notable holdings and there is railroad memorabilia as well. The Southeastern Railway Museum has limited operating hours that change during the course of a year so checking the website and calling in to check on the current circumstances is strongly suggested.
Southeastern Railway Museum, 3595 Buford Highway, Duluth, 770-476-2013, www.train-museum.org
Historically a great railroad city, starting about 1880 most trains bound for the South, many headed to the major railroad hub of Atlanta, passed through Chattanooga. A grand Beaux-Arts-style terminal station with an 85-foot free-standing dome was completed in 1909. The city’s reputation as a train town was solidified with the great success in 1941 of Glenn Miller and His Orchestra’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo” song. Today, the Chattanooga Choo Choo terminal and complex offers 363 guestrooms, including accommodations in 48 original Pullman cars. The Station House restaurant features steaks and seafood, handed off by the famous “Singing Servers.” Dinner in the Diner is available in an authentic train dining car. Chattanooga Choo Choo also has the world’s largest HO gauge model train display, Jukebox Junction Theater for entertainment, and rides on an authentic New Orleans trolley. Also in the Chattanooga area, the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway has trolley-style rail cars carry you at an exhilaratingly steep grade. The observation deck at the top is the highest overlook on Lookout Mountain.
The Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville is primarily about vintage train excursions, though it also has an impressive collection of historic railroad equipment including passenger cars, cabooses, freight cars and locomotives. The museum has a buffet lounge car and dining cars, as well as a slumber coach that contains private sleeping accommodations for up to 42 people staying overnight. The current TCRM excursion destinations include Lebanon, Watertown, Cookeville, and Monterey in Middle Tennessee. The excursions typically include special re-enactments like train robberies, Civil War re-enactments, and on-board murder mysteries or activities like visits from Santa or the Easter Bunny. To continue the Nashville railroad experience, stay at the historic Union Station Hotel, An Autograph Collection property located downtown. Originally built as a railway station in 1900, this restored landmark recaptures the grandeur of the Victorian age.
The official railroad museum for the state of Alabama is in Calera, just south of Birmingham. It features operating standard gauge and narrow gauge trains and among its collection are two restored depots, an indoor collection of railroad artifacts and memorabilia, and a collection of railroad cars, locomotives and cabooses. Museum admission is free but donations are much appreciated. There is a charge for train rides on The Calera & Shelby Railroad, which runs on a portion of the former L&N Alabama Mineral Railroad, established in 1891. The one-hour excursion takes riders through the scenic forests of Shelby County. There are nine specialty train rides that celebrate holidays, the Wild West and wine.
Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, 1919 9th St., Calera, Ala., 205-668-3435, www.hodrrm.org
Located in Chase, Ala., just east of Huntsville, NARM showcases the Chase depot, the smallest depot in the U.S. If you visit the museum on a day when the train is running, you can take a 10-mile round trip ride in a vintage train over the museum’s own Mercury & Chase Railroad from April through December. Over 30 pieces of rolling stock have been preserved including both freight and passenger equipment, three historic locomotives, a nice bunker-style refrigerator car from the 1930s, a Southern Railway Sleeper and a Dining Coach, among other examples of historic railroad apparatus.
North Alabama Railroad Museum, 694 Chase Road, Huntsville, Ala., www.northalabamarailroadmuseum.com