(Dec. 8, 2017) I am currently still in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I just published my blog about Lincoln’s birthplace. Now, let’s turn to something less profound and more fun: the Kentucky Railway Museum!
Located in quiet New Haven, Kentucky, the Kentucky Railway Museum is the official state museum telling the story of the rails in Kentucky….which largely means the story of the old Louisville and Nashville (L&N) line that dominated the state for decades.
Founded in 1954 in Louisville, the museum’s first move was forced by flooding. It’s generally not a good idea to have your museum in a flood plain! They shifted operations…only to be forced out by a non-renewal of their lease. However, at that time, CSX (which had absorbed the historic L&N line) was closing a section of track running through New Haven. The museum bought the property and 17 miles of track. They have experience one flood in this location during historic levels of rain, but had already built and moved into a new building that was elevated and safe from the waters.
I had the pleasure of being the only member of the 11:00 a.m. tour, and therefore got to see a lot of the museum and grounds otherwise inaccessible to the public. My guide was the amazing Bob Hetzel, a retired Army chaplain and very funny man. He traced out the history of the railroad in Kentucky from its pre-Civil War genesis, through the consolidation of historic L&N lines, to the take over by CSX as the 21st century offers unique challenges and opportunities for the future of rail roads.
That was all in the first fifteen minutes. Then the tour really got interesting!
I was taken into the workshop where they restore many of the engines, cars, and artifacts. I got to board a small, dust-covered self-propelled train car that ran on a gasoline engine. It was used for intercity excursions that lasted maybe an hour (the equivalent of today’s light rail). For the first time in my life I got to see and touch a mule train—an early rail trolley car that was towed by mules. The mules were, of course, replaced by electric street cars…which were later replaced by city buses.
The workshop houses two special prizes: a caboose that used to operate along the L&N line through New Haven and the huge, daunting, and disassembled L & N Steam Locomotive No. 152. This is a 1905 engine of the “4-6-2 Pacific Class.” The “4-6-2” meant four pilot (front) wheels, six drive wheels, and two cab wheels (located, you guessed it, under the cab). When reading about steam locomotives, they are all referred by this formula for wheels, so if you see a “2-4-0”, that means two pilot wheels, four drive wheels, and no cab wheels—and you can determine it’s a smaller engine than the 152.
Engine 152 is the oldest known 4-6-2 Pacific left, and has been designated the “state locomotive” for Kentucky. Bob also told me it’s believed to be the first-ever mobile item to be listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places. Engine 152 served nobly from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast…and even transported a convicted Al Capone on his way to Alcatraz! Today it’s in pieces, and if the museum is to get it running again the entire firebox and boiler will have to be replaced (not restored, replaced). The job will cost well over $700,000.00, and the museum is slowly working on getting the funding together to do it. Until then, 152 is safely stored and visitors are occasionally allowed to venture into the workshop to see her.
Bob was not shy about some of the darker parts of Kentucky’s past, nor is the museum hesitant to showcase the bad alongside the good. He took me out into the yard to see the badly decaying Louisville and Nashville Combine Car Number 665. Number 655 was a passenger car that had been split by the configuration of a baggage compartment in the middle, thus creating two separate but equal passenger compartments. In other words, it was a Jim Crow car. State laws in many parts of the U.S. demanded white and black segregation, and railroad cars were no exception. Some states, like Tennessee (where I rode on a Jim Crow car at another museum in 2012) had entire cars set aside for black patrons. The L&N solved the compliance problem by separating the passenger compartments with a baggage compartment.
Unfortunately, the 655 is, as I said, badly deteriorated. Bob told me the museum has no choice but to let it keep going. There just isn’t the money or manpower to save it in light of other projects….at least not right now. Things can change of course, but museums are always having to make difficult choices. It’s a huge volunteer undertaking, and you can see where corrosion is getting ahead of the volunteers, though not through lack of trying. It’s more lack of human resources. Bob told me they have to seriously prioritize what they work on, where they spend their money, and what artifacts are historically most significant out of a collection of items that are all historically significant.
However, the museum staff is a cheerful lot, and make the place as much fun as it is educational. The museum doesn’t just have antique trains, it also boasts a collection of antique train models along with modern model trains. One whole length of the little visitor gallery is a very detailed model that has several trains winding through towns and mountains, over bridges, and back again. Look closely for the rock climbers, tigers (there are two), and man taking care of personal business while looking at a bear approaching him out of the woods (probably about to necessitate a quick return to the makeshift toilet he’s already on). You can spend an easy hour just studying this model alone!
All museums face daunting challenges preserving large pieces of engineering, but the Kentucky Railway Museum accepted this and happily takes on an even greater hurdle: keeping much of their collection operational. At first glance it may seem a ramshackle, down-market historical operation. However, let not appearances deceive you! Get up close, ask questions, meet Bob and Brooke and the rest of the staff. They are all working towards a lofty goal, and, in the end, they are succeeding. Theirs is a living museum of working engines and rolling cars showcasing a bygone era in transportation and amazing feats of mobile engineering! You will surely miss the train if you don’t visit this wonderful facility!