It’s not often you see a locomotive fly, but there was the Texas on Monday afternoon, dangling in the air like a 26-ton Christmas ornament.
“We won’t see another thing like this in our lifetimes,” said Grant Park resident and preservationist David Mitchell, looking on eagerly as riggers and crane operators carefully maneuvered the mammoth prize.
Mitchell was among several dozen onlookers who waited patiently most of the day Monday while workers plucked the Civil War-era train from its exit tunnel out of the Cyclorama building and placed it atop a flatbed truck.
On Tuesday morning, that truck took the Texas to North Carolina for a meticulous restoration. Then, as part of a multimillion-dollar expansion of the Atlanta History Center, the Texas will come back to the center’s Buckhead campus, where it will be displayed in a glass-enclosed breezeway. At night, it will be lit up like a gem in a jeweler’s display case, visible from West Paces Ferry Road.
But before that happened, the Texas had to break free. On Monday, Mary-Elizabeth Ellard, vice president of the Georgia Battlefields Association, stood near the north wall of the Cyclorama, bundled against the chilly air, watching the elaborate operation in action. She was ecstatic at the outcome. “This is the most significant restoration effort of the sesquicentennial,” she said.
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She was particularly excited that the steam engine would provide a missing piece at the history center. “The Atlanta History Center is a museum — in a railroad town — that doesn’t have a train in it,” she said. “(The center) needs a train in it.”
The Texas became one of the most famous steam engines in history when it was commandeered by Confederate soldiers who raced it backward from Big Shanty toward Chattanooga, Tenn., to try to catch Union spies who had stolen the General. This fame kept the two engines from being sold for scrap metal.
That undignified fate befell every other steam engine that operated on the Western & Atlantic line, and there were hundreds.
“They’ve all been turned into razor blades,” said Jackson McQuigg, vice president of properties at the history center.
As he watched operators adding 10-ton counterweights to the crane’s base, Sheffield Hale, the history center’s CEO, commented that it wasn’t the engine’s Civil War fame that attracted him, as much as its status as one of two surviving engines from the railroad line that gave Atlanta its existence.
Atlanta began as the Southern terminus of the Western & Atlantic line. “It’s an existential object,” said Hale. “That engine is why we’re here.”
Put into regular service after the Civil War, the Texas was moved to Grant Park in 1911. It has been inside the Cyclorama building since 1927. That building also famously holds the panoramic painting “The Battle of Atlanta.” The 42-by-358-foot cylindrical painting will also be moved to the Atlanta History Center, and housed in a building just now under construction. That building should be completed by the end of 2016, according to Hale.
Getting the train out of the building was a complex operation. It was displayed in a basement room. To provide an exit, crews actually tunneled into the side of the hill where the building sits, cutting through the buildings’ subterranean north wall.
That slab of concrete wall was flipped to the ground and became a roadbed for a temporary set of tracks, which were cushioned with heavy wooden timbers. There were no squeaks or grinding complaints from the pistons, wheels and other moving parts, as the engine rolled along this track. “It moved crazy well,” said job superintendent Brian Newell. “It wanted to get out of that building.”
The only noise was the crunch of wood as the Texas rolled over those timbers — the sound of corn chips being crushed between giant molars.
Then came the most significant sound of all, as the 100-foot crane picked the behemoth up like a Christmas toy, setting the clapper inside the train’s bell in motion.
After decades at rest, the ancient steam engine once again rang out warning. It was coming through.