Meet the Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum
In 1899, seven rail stations chugged passengers in and out of Memphis.
Time has whittled that number to one.
But it’s an active one: Seven days a week, Amtrak services Central Station in the city’s South Main Historic District. Memphis is even a featured stop on Amtrak’s iconic City of New Orleans route connecting Chicago to NOLA.
With or without a passage planned, you can walk through the station’s cavernous lobby, sky-lit with soaring ceilings and an antique call board – all hints of a time when the depot was known as Memphis’ Grand Central Station, hosting some 50 arrivals and departures daily. (More on that here.)
For a few bucks ($3 for adults; $1 for the under-12 set; free for anyone ages three on down), you can also visit the Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum. Tucked into a corner of Central Station on street-level at South Main and G.E. Patterson, the museum opened in April and packs some pretty neat (and interactive) possibilities within its pocket-sized footprint, including:
This scale replica of Illinois Central Railroad’s Hudson-type steam locomotive (Illinois Central completed construction of Central Station in 1914 and was one of its primary lines):
Models including a trolley that zips through a vintage-vibrant downtown and this train that rolls through the countryside:
Buttons you can push to illuminate rail signals like this one:
Illustrations and black-and-white photographs of Memphis’ grand old stations, plus items found within, like the following time table and baggage cart:
The museum is sized just right for young attention spans, and a nook defined by a Thomas the Tank Engine mural, model train display and looping cartoons makes it a spot-on choice with kids:
But here’s the best tip I’ll give you: Make time to talk with the museum volunteers while you’re here. They’re the kind of people who care enough to painstakingly seek out the artifacts and stories behind the collection, whose passion for rail travel and all of its romantic and rugged notions hooks anyone who will listen. Marketing Coordinator Margaret “Mollee” Dagastino tells me how the railroad built cities (Memphis included); provided whistle stops to politicians and jobs to hoboes; transported troops during two world wars. She leads me into the 700-foot-long tunnel behind the museum, stretching with century-old baggage carts and potential for a museum expansion. As I head back toward the exhibits, she asks if she can keep my mom, whom I’ve brought with me, company. Mollee sits down beside her and, in a tone that suggests she’s already rapt, says to my mom: “Tell me about your rail travel.” They trade stories: mom recounting her high school trip on the Silver Meteor; Mollee recalling excursions to Chicago and New Orleans as a honeymooner and later as a parent, heralding the comforts of rail’s coach class. Museum Director Steve Albers stands ready to share, too – stories like how this manual switch was ultimately recovered from the personal storage unit of a former railroad employee and resurrected as a display in the museum:
There’s a vignette illuminating the history of trolleys in Memphis, too. Reading about their 1866 origin as mule-drawn streetcars makes me smile. But seeing the exhibit on Memphis’ Harahan and Frisco bridges makes me downright giddy – for the Harahan is in the process of a rails-to-trails re-purposing as a pedestrian bridge that will link Memphis to Arkansas high above the Mississippi River.
The Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum is open Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays noon to 5 p.m. and other hours (for group tours) by appointment. Round out your visit with breakfast or lunch at The Arcade (open ’til 3 p.m. daily). Directly across South Main from Central Station, it’s where rail travelers and miscellaneous wayfarers have been dining since 1919. Then, hop on the Main Street Trolley. It isn’t powered by mules these days, but the sway of the vintage cars will take you back just the same.
If you’re looking for more railroad history, there’s also the great Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum in Jackson. It’s “the best whistlestop between Memphis and Nashville” for good reason!
Ever traveled Tennessee by train or trolley? Share your story here. (And if you happen to know the location of the original call board that hung in Memphis’ Grand Central Station, contact the museum – it’s on their to-find list.)