Last Friday afternoon, as part of "Steam Days" at the Roundhouse Railroad Museum, it appeared that 23 adults and 9 children boarded a train inside the Roundhouse complex and rode to the edge of Boundary Street and back-barely a third of a mile.
Appearances can be deceiving.
If childhood is an attitude instead of an age range, then our open air passenger car was packed with kids at heart. Several were disguised as grown men, middle aged and older. In about 30 minutes our group traveled nearly 250 years along the short train track, pulled behind a 96-year-old steam locomotive and guided by our conductor, Laroe Adams, assistant site manager for the Roundhouse, an historic site operated by Coastal Heritage Society (CHS).
We rode back to the 1779 Siege of Savannah, the battle against the British that killed over 800 people fighting for American independence, memorialized at Battlefield Park next to the railroad museum. We visited several phases of boom years for the Central of Georgia Railroad and its predecessors, from the 1830's through the 1940's, imagining a time in the early 20th century when over 500 people were employed on the site.
We chugged forward to Fall 2009 and beyond, envisioning the train track that will loop around next to the 1925 Paint Shops building at the southwest corner of the site, allowing passengers in the open air car to get a close look as the Paint Shops is restored and converted into the Savannah Children's Museum.
With the help of Conductor Adams, we imagined a few years further down the tracks, when a bridge from the Roundhouse site will cross Louisville Road, taking visitors by train between the Savannah History Museum and the Roundhouse and Battlefield Park.
Through the end of July, this train trip back to the future is available three times a day, seven days a week. The Roundhouse has offered "Steam Days" in the past, bringing the steam locomotive out of its stall, blasting the whistle and turning it around on the 85-foot long turntable. This year, with 1000 feet of new railroad track running to the western edge of the Roundhouse property, CHS is offering train rides back to the lost era of steam train travel.
"We did 15 rides on the fourth of July, every half hour from 10 to 6," said Terry Koller, Director of Railroad Operations for CHS. "Plus it takes two hours to get [the steam locomotive] ready so it's a long day."
Among the "big kids" on our trip was Lewis Adams of Allenhurst. His excuse for the trip was to bring two school-aged visitors to hear the tour given by his son, Conductor Adams. Within minutes it was evident that Lewis is almost as much a Roundhouse regular as he is a proud father. His last visit was barely a week earlier. "One of the air conditioned rail cars has a good video," he said, pointing toward several restored passenger cars in the roundhouse stalls. "And you can go on the hand car," he said, referencing another new attraction.
Bill Robinson of Detroit paid $20 over the train ticket fare to suit up in coveralls and heavy gloves for a ride in the locomotive cab, assisting the engineer and the fireman with their duties on our short trip. His wife, daughter and stepmother were among the passengers in our group.
"All my life I've wanted to ride in the cab," said Robinson. "There just aren't many steam trains around."
"You can see how much they've got left to do here," said Robinson. "There's not many who have the funds to operate steam railroad like this." Then he stepped into the cab and blew the engine whistle for a long, loud blast.
"Steam Days" at the Roundhouse Railroad Museum
601 West Harris Street
Open Mon - Sun