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VOL. 127 | NO. 187 | Tuesday, September 25, 2012

‘Back in Time’

Railroad museum teaches visitors about city’s transportation origins

By RICHARD J. ALLEY

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When local model railroaders first got together with the idea two years ago, there was little more than a dream and a dark tunnel.

Steve Albers, director of the Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum, watches an electric trolley drive through a cityscape. The museum is getting ready to kick off construction of its Phase II exhibit.  

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

Today, the light at the end of that tunnel is the 2,500-square-foot Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum at 545 S. Main St. in Downtown.

According to the Downtown Memphis Commission’s website, downtownmemphis.com, the area currently has 18 museums such as the Metal Museum, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Fire Museum of Memphis, the Center for Southern Folklore and the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum.

“We feel this is really going to put us on the map,” said Jerry LaChapelle, secretary for the museum’s board. “Where else can you go to see something like that? We don’t know of any other place you can go to step back in time to see something as it existed a hundred years ago.”

Paul Morris, who is president of DMC, lives within walking distance of Downtown’s newest museum and has a 3-year-old son who is “very familiar with it.”

“What they’ve got there is interesting and the people that are working there are so passionate about it,” Morris said. “It’s a great amenity to have in the Downtown area, especially after the (Memphis) Farmers Market, to go out there on Saturday, walk around the corner to the railroad museum.”

Located within Central Station where The City of New Orleans still blows her whistle twice a day, the museum (mrtm.org) offers a history of rail travel, and the industry that helped put Memphis on the map.

It will also act as the trailhead for the Harahan Bridge Project, the pathway across the Mississippi River for bicycles and pedestrians recently put on the fast track with a $29.8 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant.

Open since April, Phase I of the museum is complete with a reproduction of the Illinois Central’s 4-6-4 locomotive, a one-of-a-kind model of a one-of-a-kind train used for a short time in the late 1930s; an interactive display of railroad signals; an exhibit trumpeting Memphis’ trolley system in that mode’s heyday; and working model railroad displays from one corner to the next, including the popular Thomas the Train display to entertain and educate kids.

The museum has been funded with $25,000 donated by local commodities trader Charles McVean, a railroad buff and proponent of the Harahan Project, with a promise of another $25,000 if the museum board matches that number. LaChapelle says $6,000 has been raised so far.

Phase II is little more now than bare walls and concrete floors, but with big plans for the next year to build out a model railroad that will take visitors back to an early 1900s Memphis.

Steve Albers, director of the Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum, watches a narrow gauge steam engine layout from the late 1800s. The museum was recently named a trailhead for the Harahan Bridge Greenway Expansion Project.

Modelers from around the country will create a diorama of the Memphis waterfront in which one will be able to see, as though from a steamboat in the middle of the river, the placement of the railroad stations, including the long-gone Poplar Street and Calhoun Street stations, in relation to scale models of the original Cossitt Library, the Customs House (now the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law) and Memphis’ first skyscraper, the D.T. Porter Building.

It’s an ambitious project and the goal for these enthusiasts and perfectionists is to be as accurate as possible.

“You’re going to see Memphis as it truly existed in three-dimension because we’re actually researching all of the buildings, we’re going to replicate that building by building by street,” LaChapelle said.

Where ambitions are concerned, none is more so than Phase III of the museum. In addition to a movie theater, and running the length of the old Railway Express Agency’s luggage sorting passageway just to the east of the Memphis Farmers Market and beneath the railroad tracks, one continuous model railroad will roll for its entire 700 feet.

The model will depict the history of Memphis railroads through a century and a half up to modern times, and aims to be “one of the longest model railroads in the world,” LaChapelle said.

“It’s a great start and I really look forward to the completion and the vision they’ve got for the rest of it,” Morris said.

The current museum space is open Friday through Sunday, and by appointment during the week. Museum visitors so far have come from as far away as Australia, Britain, Sweden, Germany and France.

“We’re not where we want to be as far as telling the history of Memphis rail yet, a lot of that’s going to start in Phase II, but we’re scratching the surface on it and we’re generating interest,” LaChapelle said. “The comments we’re getting on Facebook from the people that come down and see this are excellent; I mean, they’re just wowed.”

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