The restored locomotive Texas is the cornerstone of the Atlanta History Center permanent exhibitionLocomotion: Railroads and the Making of Atlanta. The engine was built in 1856 for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which had established its terminus in 1837 at the site that became Atlanta. For that reason, the locomotive is an important link to the city’s origins.
The detailed exhibition accompanying the Texas interprets the major role railroads played in transforming Atlanta into the transportation hub and commercial center it is today. The exhibition captures Atlanta's beginning, in 1837, when a surveyor drove a stake into the ground in a North Georgia forest previously inhabited by Native Americans. The stake marked the end point for the Western & Atlantic Railroad designed to run north to the Tennessee River in present-day Chattanooga.
The town that grew up around that stake was called Terminus before being named Marthasville and then Atlanta in the 1840s. A new site for the W&A terminus was chosen near what is now Underground Atlantaaround 1842, and the Zero Mile Post was placed there around 1850 when the rail line was completed. Railroads ultimately connected Georgia's sea ports and navigable waterways to the nation’s interior.
The gleaming Texas has been visible from West Paces Ferry Road since May 2017, when it returned to Atlanta after an extensive year-and-a-half restoration by Steam Operations Corporation at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina, a former Southern Railway Company steam locomotive servicing facility. Atlanta History Center guests now see the Texas up close – even enjoy the opportunity to climb aboard the cab to get the engineer’s view -- and learn from the exhibition surrounding it.
The Texas and the new exhibit are housed in the 2,000-square-foot, specially designed, glass-fronted Rollins Gallery, which is accessed from the Fentener van Vlissingen Family Wing (off the Allen Atrium at the History Center’s main entrance) and opens into the new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. Appropriately, the look of Rollins Gallery is inspired by historic railroad repair shops, with exposed steel girder columns and a brick wall displaying vintage railroad signage.
The Texas locomotive was part of the cyclorama attraction at Atlanta’s Grant Park for nine decades. Atlanta History Center guests can now visit the Texas as well as experience the cyclorama with its accompanying interpretive experiences and exhibitions, both part of the History Center’s all-inclusive general admission ticket.
“As railroads are Atlanta’s reason for being, this steam engine is an icon of Atlanta’s founding and growth as the Gate City of the South – the commercial center of the Southeast,” said Atlanta History Center President and CEO Sheffield Hale. “The Texas locomotive symbolizes Atlanta’s longtime relationship with railroads and the city’s importance as a hub for people, commerce, and ideas. No artifact can be more important for telling Atlanta’s origin story than this Western & Atlantic locomotive.”
The original Zero Milepost of the Western & Atlantic Railroad is paired with the Texas in Locomotion. The artifact is currently on loan from the Georgia Building Authority. The Zero Mile Post resided in its original location, beneath the Central Avenue viaduct, for many years. Around it, two Union Stations were built and ultimately demolished. A station built for the New Georgia Railroad excursion line encapsulated the artifact beginning in the 1990s; however, the building was later vacated and locked.
In October 2018, the Zero Mile Post was moved to Atlanta History Center for preservation and public display when the vacant building housing it was slated for demolition by the Georgia Building Authority. Interested visitors can visit the original site of the Terminus, which is located in a parking lot beneath Central Avenue and is marked by a Georgia Historical Society marker, an interpretive panel, and an exact replica of the Zero Mile Post commissioned by Atlanta History Center.
The Texas and the locomotive General, which is the star attraction at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia, are the sole surviving locomotives that once served the Western & Atlantic (W&A) Railroad, a company integral in Atlanta’s early development.
The Texas was produced in a classic 4-4-0 design (indicating an engine with 4 leading wheels, 4 driving wheels and 0 trailing wheels) by New Jersey locomotive maker Danforth, Cooke & Co. The design was so popular it became known as the “American type.” The 4-4-0s were ubiquitous in Atlanta, even appearing on the city’s first official seal in 1854, two years before the Texas was put into service.
Unlike the hundreds of locomotives that serviced the W&A RR and its successors, the Texas and theGeneral evaded the scrap heap because of their roles in the Great Locomotive Chase.
In the 1862 incident, Union raiders commandeered the General from the town of Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) and drove it north toward Chattanooga, attempting to destroy bridges and the W&A line. They were finally caught by Confederate forces that had pursued aboard the Texas. The Great Locomotive Chase lives large in pop culture as the subject of a 1926 Buster Keaton film and a popular 1956 Disney movie, as well as in dozens of books.
In 1907, the “Ladies of Atlanta,” a fund-raising group organized to save the Texas, rescued the engine from the W&A yard in Atlanta where it was headed for scrap. The engine was donated to the City of Atlanta in 1908 and put on outdoor display in Atlanta's Grant Park in 1911. It was placed in the Cyclorama building there in 1927, paired with The Battle of Atlanta painting as monumental reminders of the bloodiest conflict on American soil.
Atlanta History Center assumed responsibility for the engine in 2014 as part of a 75-year license agreement with the City of Atlanta that includes The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting. Atlanta History Center leaders believe interpretation of Texas should not be limited to its Civil War role, a shift from its prior display.
Beyond a Great Locomotive Chase section, Locomotion: Railroads and the Making of Atlanta explores the experience of working on the railroad (told in oral history recordings), the science and mechanics of a steam locomotive at work, segregation on the rails, the impact and presence that railroads continue to have in our lives today, and the many decisions that guided the detailed Texas restoration.
The Atlanta History Center further enhances the experience through performances of a series of rail-inspired Meet the Past museum theatre monologues. Performed in Rollins Gallery on weekends, these include Pullman porter James Stewart, Southern Railway chairman W. Graham Claytor Jr., and pioneering woman switch tender and brakeman Gertie Stewart.
Atlanta History Center leaders decided to restore the Texas to its 1886 appearance, true to its surviving vintage parts and an accurate representation of the time when railroads were building Atlanta into a transportation and commercial center. By coincidence, 1886 is also the year that The Battle of Atlantacyclorama painting was completed by mainly German artists at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee, linking these two objects through that shared year.
The Atlanta History Center dedicated $500,000 to the Texas conservation.