Above: Volunteer conductors Ken Birmingham, left, and Cliff Smith welcome passengers to a train that provides rides for visitors to the Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth. Photos by Joe Earle.
Randy Pirkle came across the Southeastern Railway Museum when he was looking for a place to do some volunteer work that would incorporate his love of history. “History and old iron go together for me,” he said.
Seventeen years later, Pirkle runs the museum as its administrator, and there’s plenty of old iron for him to visit in the displays at the 48-year-old museum of trains and transportation. It’s everywhere: vintage Pullman sleepers and steam engines tower near metal-wheeled tractors, historic yellow taxis, fire trucks and MARTA buses at the museum, which is located on 35 acres in Duluth.
The museum, designated the state’s official transportation museum, is operated by a nonprofit owned by the Atlanta Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. Its collection of railroad items alone features 90 pieces of rolling stock, including passenger cars, locomotives, box cars, cabooses, a mail car, a tank car and other railroad equipment, Pirkle said. It’s even home to a private passenger car called the “Superb” that was used by President Warren Harding and that served as his funeral train, carrying his body across the country after his death.
Why keep all this stuff?
“Educating the community about history ensures that history is not forgotten,” Pirkle said, “and [the museum] gives people a different perspective on transportation than just their time on interstate [highways]. It’s fun to see kids today, who see kids in the sense of ‘Thomas [the Tank Engine],’ as a cartoon entity. So many of their grandparents experienced trains as transportation — and you can still do that.”
The museum sprawls across four buildings, including a display building that once housed a factory where train cars were made and repaired. At its entrance, the museum displays the former Duluth passenger depot, which dates to 1871 and was moved to the site a few years ago. The facility even offers visitors the chance to take a short ride in a train caboose or in a miniature train that once operated at a zoo.
The museum also hosts special events, ranging from summer camps for kids to showings of the movie “Polar Express” around Christmas. It hosts antique tractors and trucks for a day and has even hosted antique typewriter shows, Pirkle said, because typewriters were important to running the railroads.
The roots of the museum go back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pirkle said, when train metro area train buffs joined together to save an Atlanta and West Point Railway locomotive known as 290. “It was a great big steam engine used to pull the Southern Crescent from Atlanta to Montgomery,” Pirkle said. The engine, saved from the scrap heap, remains part of the museum’s collection. It even appeared in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes.”
The museum operates primarily through efforts of volunteers, many of them retirees. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, Pirkle said. There are about 145 regular volunteers and, on any given weekend, there could be as many as 45 or so at work spread across the museum’s campus.
One recent Friday, volunteers Ken Birmingham and Cliff Smith were decked out in trainmen’s work clothes for their stints as volunteer conductors on the museum’s train ride. Smith, who’s 69 and said he’d liked trains “since I was a little kid,” wore jeans, a work shirt and a striped hat. Birmingham, who’s 75 and said he grew up across from the Long Island Railroad’s main line, wore a stiff-sided conductor’s hat.
What convinced them to spend their time at the museum on a hot June afternoon? “It’s just fun,” Birmingham said. “It’s just fun working with the kids,” Smith added.
Leo Schiltgen, who’s 70, volunteers as a conductor, too, and said he helps train other volunteers to do the job. But he also spends time restoring old train cars for the museum. He’s working now to replace wooden and tile flooring on a vintage Southern Railway dining car.
He learned how to fix metal machines while he was working, Schiltgen said, and he likes working on train cars. “It’s just something I’m interested in,” he said. “I’ve learned the skills. I might as well use them for somebody’s benefit.”
As the museum and its volunteers keep the big stock rolling, they also help preserve important links to Atlanta’s past as a train town. The museum helped put together a photo history book, called “When Atlanta Took The Train,” that shows how the city grew up around railroads.
“Atlanta is a child of the railroads,” Pirkle said. “It’s important to get people to see that. It’s very difficult to do that because Atlanta has been very successful in wiping out its own past. There’re virtually no downtown railway stations left because progress got in the way.”
Southeastern Railway Museum
3595 Buford Hwy., Duluth 30096
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays in June and July; Wednesdays through Saturdays in March through May and August through December; and Thursdays through Saturdays in January and February.
Tickets: $8 for seniors (65+), $10 for adults, $7 for children aged 2-12.
Train rides: $3 for big train, $3 for miniature train, $5 for both.
Info: 770-476-2013, train-museum.org.