ATLANTA – In two months, a new exhibition, Locomotion: Railroads and the Making of Atlanta, opens to the public at Atlanta History Center.
The cornerstone of the exhibition, debuting Saturday, November 17, 2018, is the restored locomotive Texas. The engine was built in 1856 for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which had established its terminus in 1837 at the site that became Atlanta. For that reason, the locomotive is an important link to the city’s origins.
The detailed exhibition accompanying the Texas will interpret the major role railroads played in transforming Atlanta into the transportation hub and commercial center it is today. The exhibition captures Atlanta’s beginning, in 1837, when a surveyor drove a stake into the ground in a North Georgia forest previously inhabited by Native Americans. The stake marked the end point for the Western & Atlantic Railroad designed to run north to the Tennessee River near present-day Chattanooga.
The town that grew up around that stake was called Terminus before being named Marthasville and then Atlanta in the 1840s. Railroads connected Georgia’s sea ports and navigable waterways to the nation’s interior.
The gleaming Texas has been visible from West Paces Ferry Road since May 2017, when it returned to Atlanta after an extensive year-and-a-half restoration by Steam Operations Corporation at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina, a former Southern Railway Company steam locomotive servicing facility. Atlanta History Center guests will now see the Texas up close and learn from the exhibition surrounding it.
The Texas and the new exhibit are housed in the 2,000-square-foot, specially designed, glass-fronted Rollins Gallery, which is accessed from the Fentener van Vlissingen Family Wing (off the Allen Atrium at the History Center’s main entrance) and opens into the new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. Appropriately, the look of Rollins Gallery is inspired by historic railroad repair shops, with exposed steel girder columns and a brick wall.
The Texas locomotive was a key part of the Cyclorama attraction at Atlanta’s Grant Park for nine decades. When The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting opens to the public on February 22, 2019, Atlanta History Center guests can visit the Texas as well as experience the cyclorama with its accompanying interpretive experiences and exhibitions.
Atlanta History Center leaders believe the locomotive is most worthy of the attention.
“As railroads are Atlanta’s reason for being, this steam engine is an icon of Atlanta’s founding and growth as the Gate City of the South – the commercial center of the Southeast,” said Atlanta History Center President and CEO Sheffield Hale. “The Texas locomotive symbolizes Atlanta’s longtime relationship with railroads and the city’s importance as a hub for people, commerce, and ideas. No artifact can be more important for telling Atlanta’s origin story than this Western & Atlantic locomotive.”
The Texas and the locomotive General, which is the star attraction at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia, are the sole surviving locomotives that once served the Western & Atlantic (W&A) Railroad, a company integral in Atlanta’s early development.
The Texas was produced in a classic 4-4-0 design (indicating an engine with 4 leading wheels, 4 driving wheels and 0 trailing wheels) by New Jersey locomotive maker Danforth, Cooke & Co. The design was so popular it became known as the “American type.” The 4-4-0s were ubiquitous in Atlanta, even appearing on the city’s first official seal in 1854, two years before the Texas was put into service.
Unlike the hundreds of locomotives that serviced the W&A RR and its successors, the Texas and the General evaded the scrap heap because of their roles in the Great Locomotive Chase.
In the 1862 incident, U.S. Army raiders commandeered the General from the town of Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) and drove it north toward Chattanooga, destroying bridges and the W&A line. They were finally caught by Confederate forces that had pursued aboard the Texas. The Great Locomotive Chase lives large in pop culture as the subject of a 1926 Buster Keaton film and a popular 1956 Disney movie as well as in dozens of books.
In 1907, the “Ladies of Atlanta,” a fund-raising group organized to save the Texas, rescued the engine from the W&A yard in Atlanta where it was headed for scrap. The engine was donated to the City of Atlanta in 1908 and put on outdoor display in Atlanta’s Grant Park in 1911. It was placed in the Cyclorama building there in 1927 paired with The Battle of Atlanta painting as monumental reminders of America’s bloodiest conflict.
Atlanta History Center assumed responsibility for the engine in 2014 as part of a 75-year lease agreement with the City of Atlanta that includes the enormous Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting. Atlanta History Center leaders believe interpretation of Texas should not be limited to its Civil War role, a shift from its prior display.
While it is the star of Atlanta History Center’s new transportation exhibit, the Texas is far from its only artifact. Numerous objects from Atlanta railroads will be displayed alongside the locomotive, including:
· A circa 1900 bench where countless travelers waited to board passenger trains from the Georgia Railroad/Atlanta & West Point/Western Railway of Alabama family of railroads
· Signage from a 1949 Pullman sleeping car built for Southern Railway
· The 1905 bronze building dedication plaque from Atlanta’s Terminal Station
· A circa 1940 operating signal from Terminal Station
· The original Track 1 sign from Atlanta’s 1930 Union Station
· Original gate signs for trains announcing departure times for trains operating to and from Atlanta’s Terminal and Union stations
· Western Union telegraph signage and clocks
· And signs from other railroads that served Atlanta over the years
Other aspects of the Locomotion: Railroads and the Making of Atlanta exhibit chronicle the Great Locomotive Chase, the experience of working on the railroad (told in oral history recordings), the science and mechanics of a steam locomotive at work, segregation on the rails, the impact and presence that railroads continue to have in our lives today, and the many decisions that guided the detailed Texas restoration.
The Atlanta History Center is further enhancing the experience by creating a series of rail-inspired Meet the Past museum theatre characters that will also premiere with the opening of Texas in November. Performed in the Rollins Gallery on weekends, these include Pullman porter James Stewart, Southern Railway chairman W. Graham Claytor Jr., and pioneering woman switch tender and brakeman Gertie Stewart.
As part of the Atlanta History Center’s hands-on-history approach, guests will be invited to climb up into the locomotive’s cab and get the engineer’s view of the larger-than-life Texas.
Atlanta History Center leaders decided to restore the Texas to its 1886 appearance, true to its surviving vintage parts and an accurate representation of the time when railroads were building Atlanta into a transportation and commercial center. By coincidence, 1886 is also the year that The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting was completed by German artists at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee, linking these two objects through that shared year.
The Atlanta History Center dedicated $500,000 to Texas conservation.
Major funding for the new gallery was provided by the Gary W. Rollins Foundation. CSX is major sponsor for the accompanying exhibit.