By Don Heimburger
Let's talk about trains, and especially train travel. It's a fun topic for everyone, both for dyed-in-the-wool dedicated railfans, and for those who just like to “get out and about” and see what America's railroads and rail museums offer.
Located on 33 acres in a park-like setting in Green Bay, Wisconsin (two hours north of Milwaukee), is the engaging National Railroad Museum. Started in 1956 by a group of dedicated railfans who wanted to preserve steam, this museum now owns and displays more than 70 pieces of rolling stock, offers train rides, and has an unparalleled collection of colorful passenger train drumheads that were once displayed on the rear of name trains. Celebrities often posed near the signs, and every use of such pictures promoted that particular train as a celebrity favorite, which was essentially an endorsement of its service. The first drumhead was displayed on the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited in the early 1900s. The train ran between Chicago, Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
MORE TO SEE
But wait, there's more to see at this museum—much more! The huge 4-8-8-4 Big Boy—the world’s largest steam locomotive, weighing in at 1.1 million pounds and measuring nearly half a football field in length (more than 132 feet long)—sits on the museum grounds for all to explore. The Big Boy locomotive was designed to haul heavy freight for the Union Pacific Railroad over the rugged mountainous regions in Utah and Wyoming. It's a colossal piece of machinery!
If you're a World War II rail buff, the museum has several pieces that will interest you, too, like the London & North Eastern A-4 class Dwight D. Eisenhower steamer built in 1937. The engine honors the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. Also in the museum’s collection are two British carriages that were assigned to General Eisenhower’s command train during World War II. One of the carriages contains Eisenhower’s quarters and lounge. The second is a dormitory (sleeper) used by the general’s staff.
While on the grounds, you'll want a train ride, I'm sure! The train ride offered, from May 1 through September and then on October weekends, is a pleasant half hour journey adjacent to the Fox River and through the museum grounds. Along the way, the conductor describes the various aspects of the historical railroad collection, points out highlights of the museum, talks about railroad safety —and even discusses hobo culture. No reservations are needed to ride the train.
BEGINNINGS OF THE MUSEUM
General Carl R. Gray, director general of the Military Railway Service from 1942 to 1945, conveyed his dream of establishing a national railroad museum to a group of Green Bay area business leaders after the war. In 1955, those business leaders formed the Steam Locomotive Committee to obtain a steam locomotive and preserve it in a city park. The two dreams came together after a meeting with D. Everest in Wausau. As president of Wausau Papers, Everest had railroad contacts that got the group its first steam locomotive.
The museum opened for its first season in 1961, and the museum's Hood Junction depot was built that year. The Victor McCormick Train Pavilion was added in 1970 and houses the museum’s steam locomotive and passenger car collections.
Contact www.nationalrrmuseum.org for more information, or call 920-437-7623.