Southeastern Railway Museum explores city’s past, present as transportation hub

By Guest Columnist PAUL GRETHER, president of the National Railway Historical Society – Atlanta Chapter and MARTA’s manager of streetcar development

Atlanta is a child of transportation. We owe our success, our past and future economic prosperity and our progressive attitude toward commerce to our transportation networks.

These developments occur only in metropolitan areas where the population and businesses have good access to regional, national and global transportation systems such as Atlanta.

The Atlanta region needs to preserve this history so that we are reminded of our greatest regional strength for ensuring a prosperous and successful future: transportation.

Atlanta has a “best kept secret” attraction regarding its transportation history: the Southeastern Railway Museum. The region has a world class collection of historical transportation artifacts related to Atlanta, the Southeast and the development of transportation technology. Yet most Atlantans have no idea that it even exists!

Paul Grether

Many years ago, during the end of several eras in transportation, a small group of Atlantans decided that key pieces of transportation history were worth preserving for future generations.

In the 1950’s, railroads were quickly eliminating the steam locomotives that created the industrial revolution and its associated economic prosperity. Along with them, the passenger trains connecting Atlanta to the rest of Georgia and the country were disappearing.

Streetcars, and the trackless trolleys that followed, were replaced by freeways, forever changing the face of urban transportation.

The Civil Rights Movement, federal involvement in transportation funding and regulation, and the emergence of automobiles and jet airliners would change transportation forever.

The Atlanta Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society was chartered. Deals were struck and all kinds of recently retired transportation equipment and artifacts were donated to the fledgling organization.

With cooperation from the City of Atlanta, a small transportation museum named “Cinderama” was installed at the City Park at Lakewood Fairgrounds. Big steam locomotives, passenger and freight railroad equipment, an Atlanta streetcar and an old transit bus were all displayed at the popular museum.

Changes in leadership at the city brought about a desire to portray a ’modern’ municipal image. Then changes at Lakewood resulted in the museum being asked to relocate. Thanks to friendly railroad executives, the equipment was relocated to storage in various railroad yards around Atlanta.

A small meeting with Southern Railway officials at the Commerce Club in downtown resulted in the donation of 13 acres of land for a museum near Duluth, and the Southeastern Railway Museum was born.

Over the next 30 or so years the museum developed at a painstakingly slow rate. The collection quickly outgrew both the location and the organization’s ability to take care of it, much less provide the proper context for its display, preservation, and restoration. There was little room for education and the interpretation of our region’s transportation history.

The situation improved in the late 1990s when anew and substantially larger location in Duluth was donated at an old industrial site. The eyesore was transformed into the museum’s new home.

Visitor facilities, exhibition space and additional storage were now available. The collection grew to include antique surface transportation artifacts such as automobiles, taxicabs, and all kinds of public transportation equipment that are currently on display.

In 2000, a bill passed the Georgia Legislature and was signed by Gov. Roy Barnes designating the Museum “the Official Transportation History Museum of the State of Georgia.”

And today, the Southeastern Railway Museum is already showing signs of becoming a world class attraction. Despite limited marketing efforts, visitor counts are up, with surveys showing origins in all 50 states and many countries around the world.

Now is the time for the Atlanta region to step up and support the museum. We should put our best foot forward for our national and global visitors. Big changes are being made to evolve the museum into a community-oriented (and governed) world-class transportation museum.

However, success is not guaranteed unless the community gets involved. A strategic plan, built with the assistance of a consultant familiar with transportation museum development, calls for both organizational changes and capital investment in facilities to restore, preserve, display and interpret the big parts of the collection that still sit in storage subject to deterioration from the elements.

Also agreements are being made to turn the museum’s management over to a new community-based, non-profit board of trustees.

Thanks to generous donors and Federal Transportation Enhancement (TE) funding provided through the Georgia Department of Transportation, several major capital initiatives have been implemented successfully. These include the relocation and restoration of the 1870s Duluth railroad depot, development of visitor facilities and exhibits.

To leap from these successes to the next level, the organization needs new board trustees – individuals willing to get involved and help make community connections for the museum.

Fundraising efforts for major capital projects are needed to stabilize and preserve the collection for the next generation so that the small pieces we have of Atlanta’s transportation past do not disappear through neglect.

The organization is currently engaged in matching challenge grants and new TE funds to develop our next facility for display of the collection – a new place to showcase the history to which we owe our past and future successes.

The development of a world class attraction on transportation will have many positive benefits for Atlanta’s economy, bringing tourism dollars, a unique event venue and bolstering our collective regional community pride in our past and future.

We invite you to come see the museum for yourself.

For more information on the Southeastern Railway Museum, please go to: www.southeasternrailwaymuseum.org.

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