All Aboard for History!

By Jackson McQuigg and Gordon Jones

The Texas arrives to Atlanta History Center, greeted by our staff and visitors.

Last week, two trucks carrying the latest addition to the Atlanta History Center rolled up on our property at 130 West Paces Ferry Road. The tractor-trailers carried a unique cargo—the Western & Atlantic (W&A) locomotive Texas, fresh from a 15-month-long restoration at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina.

The Texas, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was produced by New Jersey locomotive maker Danforth, Cooke & Co. in 1856. The Texas was most famous for its role in the 1862 Great Locomotive Chase of the Civil War, when it was used to chase down Union Army loyalists who had commandeered another Western & Atlantic steam locomotive, the General, from the town of Big Shanty (now Kennesaw). The Great Locomotive Chase lived large in books, magazines and movies, including a 1926 Buster Keaton comedy and a 1956 Disney drama starring Fess Parker.

The Texas in the NC&StL yards in Downtown Atlanta, ca. 1907.

The Texas was a workhorse of the W&A, hauling freight and performing other work until 1907, when it was finally consigned to the scrap yard. The following year, after a huge public outcry for its preservation, the Texas was donated to the City of Atlanta, which displayed it outdoors in Grant Park. In 1927, it was moved inside the Atlanta Cyclorama building. In 1936, Atlanta historian Wilbur Kurtz repainted it and added a new smokestack, pilot (“cowcatcher”), name plates and other parts so that it would resemble its 1862 appearance.

In 2012 a conservation assessment of the Texas by Scott Lindsay of Steam Operations Corporation (which specializes in the restoration and operation of historic locomotives) confirmed that the Texas needed substantial work. Unchecked rust was present in many areas (albeit largely painted over in 1936), several of the timbers comprising the tender frame were rotten and failing, and a variety of parts had gone missing over the years. This work would also mean moving the Texas out of the Cyclorama building in Grant Park, which would be a major logistical challenge, to say the least! 

The Texas being lifted out of the Grant Park building in December 2015.

In 2014, thanks to the support of several key donors, the Atlanta History Center and the City of Atlanta signed a 75-year license agreement, whereby the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama and the Texas were to be moved to a new facility constructed at the Atlanta History Center. Accordingly—and with great fanfare—the Texas was carefully lifted out of its old home in the Grant Park building just before Christmas 2015. Cranes and trucks brought it to the North Carolina Transportation Museum for restoration by Steam Operations Corporation.

All locomotives are essentially a random collection of spare parts. Locomotives evolve over time, making restorations an inexact science—requiring a combination of historical research, interpretive finesse, and pragmatism. The changes the Texas underwent throughout its 51-year service life with the Western & Atlantic Railroad (W&A) and Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway (NC&StL), prove it was no different.

It was repainted many times. It was upgraded to burn coal instead of wood. Parts were replaced as they wore out—boiler, steam and sand domes, stack, pilot, cab, cylinders, wheels—in fact, almost every part except for the frame itself. Forensic work by Max Sigler and Nathaniel Watts of Steam Operations Corporation and finishes analysis done by David Black of Raleigh, North Carolina, confirmed that very little remains of the locomotive that took part in the Great Locomotive Chase.

And the Texas is so much more than The Great Locomotive Chase. Atlanta was founded as a railroad junction and its continued existence is inextricably tied to the W&A. Because the Texas is one of only two locomotives from the W&A still left in existence (the other is the General in Kennesaw) the Texas is a tangible link to the New South city that rose from the ashes of the Civil War.

“The Texas locomotive symbolizes Atlanta’s longtime relationship with railroads and the city’s importance as a hub for people, commerce, and ideas," History Center President and CEO Sheffield Hale commented. "No artifact can be more important for telling the story of Atlanta’s beginnings than this Western & Atlantic locomotive.”

With all of this in mind, the decision was made to restore the Texas to its appearance on the Western & Atlantic in 1886—after its last major modifications—and perhaps not coincidentally the same year the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting was completed.

The Texas’ new color scheme is dominated by black, but it boasts other secondary hues of 1880s locomotives, including brass details, a Russia-iron (blue-tinted) boiler jacket, a red cab interior, and the Western & Atlantic (W&A RR) lettering on its side in yellow-gold—all choices that photographic and other research indicated were true to the 1880s. Other aspects of the restoration include a new pilot/cow catcher, a new smokestack, a correctly-painted wooden cab with glass windows and appropriate brass fixtures, the replacement of rusted out sections of the tender, and a new number plate.

The Texas and any accompanying exhibition on railroads in Atlanta is expected to open to the public in fall 2017, inside a specially designed glass-fronted hallway-gallery connected to the new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. The 2,000-square-foot gallery, accessed through the Atlanta History Museum’s Fentener van Vlissingen Family Wing (off the Allen Atrium), will be lit at night and easily viewed by passers-by on West Paces Ferry Road.  

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