5 Star Stories: The history behind Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum

Updated: Apr. 20, 2021 at 9:58 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis Central Station, on the southwest corner of South Main and G.E. Patterson since 1914, in its heyday, hosting more than 50 trains a day filled with passengers.

It’s only a small part of Memphis’ railway history but inside that same building is a little museum that could and does tell the bigger story.

”Our whole focus is telling the Memphis railroad history story, we’re unique in that we focus locally because there’s so much detail,” said Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum President Mike Fleming.

The Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum makes the grade with model train sets for the young and old alike.

As well as pictures and artifacts of railway days gone by.

”We have artifacts that show the way the conductors operated, the way train people did their business,” said Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum Vice President Joe Oliver. ”Everything from dishes, to the instruments that they used on trains and so forth. And how the conductors were selected, how they were hired and all this here.”

Oliver conducts tours in the museum, a backtrack of his own life.

”When I was growing up, I was fascinated by trains, we were sharecroppers and a train would always come through. And one thing I would always notice about my dad when the train would blow its whistle, he would always look at his watch,” said Oliver. “Because the train was always on time. And I would see that train go by and of course, there I’d say, ‘I wonder where that train go.’ So, now since I had this opportunity I can show young people where trains go and what they do. And it creates such a fantasy for the kids. They just, they enjoy it over and over and over again they never get enough of it. And old guys, like myself, we enjoy it.”

And what would a museum about trains be without the travelers who hopped the locomotives to find work?

”The hobos when they would come through, they had a language of their own,” said Oliver. “They could leave messages for the hobos coming through to where you can get food or where not to go.”

Even more fascinating, how the museum fast tracks visitors through the relationship between Memphis and the iron horses.

”The story we’re trying to tell, if you look at the growth and development of Memphis railroads played a huge role in that,” said Fleming. “1835, they signed the charter for LaGrange and Memphis Railroad, OK? That line still exists today and that is the Norfolk/Southern line that runs out to East Memphis. It originally started in Downtown Memphis. Their station was down near where the Commercial Appeal building is back where there’s a historical marker where the old Commercial Appeal building is. And it ran from there as far out as Eppie White’s plantation and if you think of things in East Memphis, think about White Station Road. That’s where his plantation was and that’s how it all started back in the pre-Civil War.”

”The Frisco bridge or the Great Memphis bridge as it was originally opened in 1892,” added Fleming. “It was the first railroad bridge south of St. Louis and it was, in 1890, was one of the 7 Engineering Wonders of the World.”

The bridge and the subsequent expansion of the city’s first bit of track into the Norfolk/Southern Rail Line, put Memphis on the express line to become a transportation hub.

”And those changed the whole dynamic,” said Fleming. “You know people, instead of people shipping things to Memphis into East Arkansas to get on the river, stuff left the river and went east and west especially after the Memphis and Charleston opened in 1854 because the traffic would move all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.”

The ultimate goal for the museum is to expand into this huge freight tunnel running beneath Central Station.

“And this tunnel was what they used to unload the trains,” said Oliver. ”Matter of fact the railroad runs over this tunnel and the trains would stop at the end of it.”

For now, the tunnel is a time capsule and stop along the museum tour, as well as storage for the artifacts that can’t currently be exhibited.

There’s also hope for an outdoor railroad park.

”And we have a spot that’s just south of Central Station on that we’re working on trying to get a railroad park set up there,” said Fleming ”And it’s the only place in North America where you can see the tracks of five Class One railroads from one spot.”

Thought the dream us for expansion, the Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum, even now, is just the ticket with plenty of bells and whistles.

”It’s something that America will never get rid of, it’s in our blood,” said Fleming. ” So, we’ll always love trains. But, this way, we can keep the dream alive for everybody.”

Incidentally, the five Class One railroads that serve Memphis, right now are: Norfolk Southern, CSX, Union Pacific, Canadian National and Burlington Northern Sante Fe.

Amtrak’s City of New Orleans passenger train runs through Memphis as well.

And there are two short line railroads that serve industrial areas in Memphis: R-J Corman and the Grenada Railway.

The Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum is run by volunteers and relies strictly on donations with probably the cheapest museum ticket in town at $5 for adults. Visit http://mrtm.org/ for more information about the museum.

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