The sleek trains of the Metro light rail system have garnered much attention the past few years, but a hodgepodge of formidable old rail cars sitting in a field in Chandler will shine on Saturday, when the Arizona Railway Museum celebrates National Train Day.
“We’ll have a lot of equipment open that’s not normally open for the public to go through — passenger cars, cabooses, a steam locomotive,” says Bart Barton, president of the museum. “You’ll be able to blow the whistle inside the steam locomotive and climb inside a diesel locomotive and blow the horn.”
Among the cars on display will be the 100-year-old “Federal,” an Amtrak-certified railcar used by presidents Taft and Wilson; a trolley car that once transported passengers through the streets of Toronto; and a 1948 sleeper car acquired earlier this year that contains a kitchen, four bedrooms and two lounges.
Saturday marks the 142nd anniversary of the day the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Summit, Utah. The connection of rails from coast to coast marked the beginning of a rail travel boom that didn’t wane until the middle of the 20th century.
At the Chandler museum, volunteers painstakingly restore beaten-up rail cars, worn artifacts and sometimes rusty equipment from all eras of railroad history.
They’ve been working on a Santa Fe coach car, built of wood in 1910 by the famous Pullman Company, for eight years.
“We started to clean it out and discovered all of the stained glass work above the false ceiling. Research showed us this was a smoker car — a car you would go to to smoke your cigars. All of the stained glass is original, and we did some new woodwork to replace the old rotting pieces,” says Mark Redmond, coordinator of Saturday’s festivities.
Another turnaround came in the restoration of a superintendent’s car.
“What a history,” says Redmond. “On a siding in Texas, vandals set it on fire. Only the quick actions of the local fire department saved the car. The museum (that) owned it thought it was un-restorable. Now the car is in almost brand-new shape.”
The museum owns about 43 pieces of railroad equipment.
It was slated last month to host the Railroad Revival Tour, a concert tour by the Grammy Award-winning band Mumford and Sons that traveled exclusively aboard a train made up of vintage rail cars, but the concert was moved to Tempe.
“It was a big disappointment,” says Barton, who drove to Maricopa to see the band’s train pass through. “They were talking about 8,000 people coming to the concert. Since our mission is railroad history, it would have been nice for people just to come out to look at it, even if they weren’t going to the concert.”
National Train Day attracted about 1,600 people last year, but Barton says people are still surprised to learn the train museum is there, about 2 miles south of downtown Chandler in the southwest corner of Tumbleweed Park.
He says you don’t have to be a train enthusiast to appreciate the history preserved in vintage rail equipment.
“Without trains, we never would have moved west. It just wasn’t feasible to populate the West entirely by covered wagons and horseback. Trains brought people and East Coast manufactured goods out here, and they brought timber and mineral products back East. They’re the reason we expanded.”
National Train Day will include model railroad displays with running trains, giveaways of small trinkets donated by Amtrak, and food, available for a small fee, prepared by the Chandler Lions Club. The club will also provide free hay rides to and from the museum and parking areas.
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