Train museums are repositories of great industrial beasts and fascinating human stories. The best ones not only collect stuff, they research, repair, and save our heritage from permanent destruction.
History, of course, is all connected. It isn’t sorted neatly into categories like transportation, health, the military, and recreation. For example, the bicycle radically changed women’s clothing. Air conditioning shifted the American population south and west, altering U.S. politics. Trains themselves led to the invention of time zones in 1883.
The Central of Georgia Railway began in the 1830s, led by William Washington Gordon, whose statue I’d seen in Savannah. The company quickly grew and built a machine shop, foundry, upholstery shop, paint shop, and even a print shop. I saw that complex today—which is now focused on restoring and displaying old trains.
The Railway saw itself as a community institution, running a large hospital and using progressive labor policies. But legal maneuvering and hostile takeovers resulted in the railroad going bankrupt and reorganizing around the turn of the century, and again after WWII.
The whole enterprise was then bought for scrap, and the specially-made (by slaves) bricks called Savannah Grey started selling. When local people in the 1960s noticed the 150-year-old showpiece brick tower getting smaller and smaller they went to court, invoked a century-old clause in the corporate contract, and many years later got the railway buildings back, turning them into a museum—not just of trains, but of a way of life.
And that’s why historical preservation is important—they are a living textbook of various ways of life that are in the process of simply disappearing. Or already have.
I toured the machine shop, entered some of the cars being restored (including a Jim Crow car that separated Negroes from Whites), and was transported. I’ve heard that only heartless people don’t love dogs. Nah…but what kind of person doesn’t like trains?
My last stop in the train museum was the most poignant. As Sherman’s troops marched through Georgia in 1864 tearing up the railroads (so they couldn’t transport Confederate troops, food, or exports), they became quite efficient at it. They’d periodically pull up the wooden ties, build enormous fires with them, toss in a few rails, and when they were red-hot, twist the rails around trees so they could never be repaired. The result was called a Sherman Necktie.
I saw a real one today. It testified to war, and hate, and humans’ extraordinary power to both create and destroy.
Leaving the museum I headed northeast to Charleston. Crossing the Savannah River, a sign welcomed me to South Carolina’s Cultural Tourism Corridor.
That’s me, I thought—a Cultural Tourist. I had chosen this area for vacation (instead of, say, Palm Springs, Las Vegas or Orlando), had flown across the continent, and was spending my time and money right here examining the past.
And so were those strangers with whom I’d toured the railroad museum, and those other strangers whom I’d seen walking the paths of Kennesaw Mountain and those other strangers getting windblown at Fort Jackson.
I smiled, driving the hundred miles to the next rendezvous with my tribe. We’re meeting at Fort Sumter and a 200-year-old synagogue and Charleston’s City Hall. We’re keeping the past alive.
It’s a noble pursuit.