As Locomotive 1824, built in the early 1950s, approaches Grand Junction Station in Chattanooga, the sights and sounds of history are ever present. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM).
While railroads in the United States date as far back as the early 1700s, Chattanooga’s rail history began in 1849 as the Western and Atlantic Rail Company operated the first train to the city, which became the northern terminus from Atlanta. By 1857, Chattanooga was the main hub for rail travel in the South.
As the use of personal automobiles and air travel increased and became more available to the general public, rail travel dramatically decreased. Freight operations also decreased as large trucks were able to make hauls across the country using the Interstate highway systems.
According to Railroads of Chattanooga, a book by Alen T. Walker, rail employees and enthusiasts wanted to step in and find a way to preserve and remember the Golden Age of Railroading. In 1961, two Chattanoogans, Paul H. Merriman and Robert M. Soule, recruited local railroad enthusiasts and formed the Tennessee Valley Chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society.
“The chapter began collecting railroad-related items and rolling stock. The intention was to create some sort of museum that would interpret railroad history, yet allow the visitor the chance to experience rail travel as it would have been like in the period between 1920 and 1950- the Golden Age of Railroading in America,” says Walker in his book. Over time, the local chapter of the historical society would evolve into what is now known as the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.
Steve Freer, Operations Coordinator for TVRM, was just seven years old when he discovered his love for trains. His father helped with track work at TVRM and Freer has been involved ever since- Volunteering as much as possible, and then working as an employee with TVRM for the past 13 years. Freer says TVRM is a different kind of experience than most typical museums.
“We don’t really have a walk-through type of exhibit area,” says Freer. The museum is more of a hands-on adventure than a set of displays encased in glass, however, there is a rail yard in front of the main station in which 10 locomotives, six passenger cars, and a dining car are all on display. The oldest piece of equipment the museum owns is Locomotive 249 which was built in 1891 by Baldwin Locomotive Works.
The museum is a meeting ground for the past and present. To depict the Golden Age of Railroading, the museum represents an “everyday small-town type of railroading when passenger railroading was at it’s peak,” Freer says.
“Our mission is education of the public as it relates to railroads and their role in this area, and the development of the community and the industry,” says Tim Andrews, president of TVRM. Andrews serves as the third-ever president of the museum. The first two were founders Merriman and Soule.
The museum represents a fun and interesting way to learn about the history of railroading. “You have to be able to experience steam locomotives in operation,” says Andrews. “We’re an early form of re-enacting, in a sense. When you ride in the passenger car, it’s a sense of what riding in the train was like in the 1920s and 30s.” This historical presence also makes the museum a perfect location for filming railroad-era movies.
While Hollywood itself may be more than 2,000 miles away from Chattanooga, movies and television shows have brought their shoots to the Southeast just to take advantage of the unique historical props TVRM has available. The first production to use equipment from the museum was Fools’ Parade, starring Jimmy Stewart in 1971.
Most recently, the 2011 movie Water for Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, filmed during the summer of 2010 on location and used equipment from the museum. Freer says the planning for this particular movie to film at the TVRM took a least a year and a half before the actors and crew came.
Other notable movies include October Sky (1999) starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Leatherheads (2008) starring George Clooney and Renée Zellweger. Some Like It Hot (1959) starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curits, and Jack Lemmon also used a passenger car that TVRM currently owns, but was filmed before TVRM was formed.
As a not-for-profit educational organization, TVRM operates with roughly 50 paid employees, such as conductors, engineers and tour guides, but relies heavily on volunteer work. “We have about a thousand members of the museum, with about 100-150 of them being volunteers, 25 to 30 of them are considered ‘regulars.’ They’re there because they have a lot of interest in railroading, much like the founders.
Like Freer, Paul Burch, an engineer for the museum, became interested in railraoding because of his father. “He was an engineer on the Santa Fe in the Midwest, so I got interested and started doing the same thing,” Burch says as he waits for the passengers to return to Locomotive 1824 after stopping at the Chattanooga East junction. “I like the variety of work, being outside and being able to work hands on.” Burch started volunteering with the museum in 1997, and became an employee in 2000.
Besides bringing in many tourists on a weekly basis, the museum also has quite a few annual events and special train rides. This past May, Day Out With Thomas provided families with activites such as riding the special Thomas the Train, storytelling, and a petting zoo. This event alone brought in more than 15,000 guests over two weekends.
Other special events include Railroad Summer Camp, the kid-friendly Eerie Express for Halloween, Home for the Holidays, the North Pole Limited, the Valentine Dinner Train, and because the museum is celebrating 50 years, the first-ever Tennessee Valley Railfest.
Railfest occured from September 3-5, bringing in approximately the same amount of guests as Day Out With Thmoas did. The event showcased local musicians, activites for children, festival food, and demonstrations and exhibits. The function was so successful, the museum is considering making it an annual affair.
Visit www.twrail.com for more information.
Story and Photography by Katie Freeland
This article was originally published in 2011 October/November Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.