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Downtown museum celebrating Tucson's railroad history reopens
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Downtown museum celebrating Tucson's railroad history reopens

A downtown museum dedicated to one of the driving forces behind Tucson’s early development is open again after spending much of the last year shuttered because of COVID-19.

The Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, located in part of what was built in 1907 to be the Southern Pacific train station, celebrates railroad history and the contributions the industry has made to Tucson.

“When the railroad came in 1880, it changed the city completely,” said Kenneth Karrels, chairman of the museum board. “It made Tucson more accessible and was a major employer up until the 1950s.”

The museum first opened in 2005 but is not as well known as tourist destinations like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Karrels said.

“So many people in Tucson come in and say, ‘I didn’t know you were here,’ ” he added. “We often find out-of-town visitors are the ones who find out about us and bring in the folks who live here.”

The museum is free, family-friendly and during non-pandemic years, holds regular events, including a Silver Spike Railroad Festival, marking the arrival of the railroad in Tucson, and a Holiday Express event around Christmas.

Here are some of the things you are likely to experience on your visit.

  • Touch-free exhibits — The volunteer staff spent the museum’s pandemic downtime making several of its interactive displays touch-free.

Instead of pressing buttons, you now swipe your hands in front of motion sensors to listen to “Conductor Bill,” one of the museum’s resident mannequins, describing the role and duties of a conductor or watch the museum’s G scale model train make its way around a track that’s suspended along the ceiling.

“We try to provide an experience that is educational and entertaining,” Karrels said. “I think people retain more by doing that.”

  • Lots of history — It’s appropriate that the main museum is located in what was once Southern Pacific’s records building. The exhibition hall is packed with historical information about Tucson’s railroad past and about railroad life in general. Antique lanterns hang from the ceiling, and shelves showcase everything from the fine china used in dining cars to the hats worn by conductors and brakemen.

“We are relatively compact, but we get a lot in there,” Karrels said. “Our mission here is to give history a future. In this case, the men and women who toiled in the railroad soil.”

The history lessons are re-enforced by the fact that many of the docents and staff at the museum worked for the railroad.

Curator Randy Hill spent decades in the industry, and can answer just about any question you throw at him.

An avid collector of railroad memorabilia, many of the items on display in the museum have either been donated or are on loan from Hill’s own collection.

“I am constantly looking for stuff,” Hill said. “If I get something really interesting it comes down here for display for a while.”

  • One big train — Head closer to the tracks that run along the historic depot grounds to find one of the museum’s signature pieces: Its Locomotive No. 1673, which started its life in 1900 with Southern Pacific Railroad and even made a cameo in the 1955 musical, “Oklahoma!”

It was relocated to its current spot in 2000 after spending years in Himmel Park. Guests are invited to climb aboard to see all of the buttons and levers that train crews had to deal with back in the day.

The train shares space with web cameras operated by Virtual Railfan (virtualrailfan.com), a service that streams railroad stations across the country on YouTube to more than 278,000 subscribers.

The feed, which can be found by typing “Virtual Railfan Tucson” into the YouTube search prompt has people watching from around the world and can have hundreds of viewers when trains are scheduled to come through.

Karrels said the museum helped the site get set up in Tucson.

“The platform is well-lit, so it is easy to see at night when the train comes in,” Karrels said. “We have people from Australia, Europe, all over, hearing it, seeing it.”

  • The actual station – After making your way through the museum and checking out the locomotive, slip into the one part of the historic depot that still serves its original purpose.

The Amtrak station’s waiting room offers glimpses of the past, courtesy of the Transportation Museum. The wooden seating is straight out of the 1940s, while reproductions of Maynard Dixon paintings hang on the walls alongside historic depot photos.

Drop your railroad-related memories into a box provided by the museum that they in turn will digitize and put online.

  • The convenient location — The museum sits on the northeast side of downtown, within walking distance of East Congress Street and East Broadway, where many of the restaurants, bars and breweries are back open for business. Enjoy “Tucson’s T-Bone” or a seared ahi tostada at Charro Steak & del Rey, 188 E. Broadway, or order some bacon mac ’n cheese and in-house ice cream at Hub Restaurant & Ice Creamery, 266 E. Congress.

Maynards Restaurant, located in the same depot as the museum, remains closed, but its sister restaurant, Cup Café, located across the street at Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St., has relaunched with a new menu.

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at ggay@tucson.com or 573-4679.


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