Home » This Incredible Train Museum Has A Rockstar Lineup Of Railroad History You Won’t See Anywhere Else

This Incredible Train Museum Has A Rockstar Lineup Of Railroad History You Won’t See Anywhere Else

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Last weekend, my wife and I took a day trip away from our compound of sad German cars and loud, tiny birds. This time, our drive led us into America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin, past Milwaukee and straight to Green Bay, where you’ll find the National Railroad Museum nestled on a bank of a river. This museum is small, but packs an incredible train history punch. How incredible are we talking about here? This museum has a Union Pacific Big Boy; the only LNER Class A4 streamliner in America; and GM’s wild experiment to beat airplanes all under the same roof. Check it out!

Two years ago I was forced to limit the scope of the wrenching I do at home. I was mad about this at first, but it has turned into a bit of a blessing. My weekends used to be filled with trying to keep broken things alive. Now I go on day-long dates with my wife. Our little date adventures are how we found the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois, the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum in Pontiac, Illinois, the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin, Illinois, and most recently, the Crazy ’80s Car Museum in Dwight, Illinois.

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The great thing about the museums we’ve found in our slice of the Midwest is that each one offers something you won’t see elsewhere. The excellent Illinois Railway Museum, which is the largest train museum in America, has several miles of track and nearly 500 pieces of rail equipment. Yet it doesn’t have what the National Railroad Museum has.

The Only Congressionally-Designated Railroad Museum

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The story of how the National Railroad Museum came to be is similar to how anyone starts a large collection.

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According to Northern Watch, the museum was the brainchild of D.C. Everest. Known as one of Central Wisconsin’s most influential industrialists, Everest spent 46 years as the general manager, the president, and the chairman of Marathon Paper Mills Company. Before his death in 1955, Everest dreamed of starting a national railroad museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin to preserve American rail history.

In 1956, local business leaders and volunteers made that dream a reality with the founding of the museum. At first, the museum was a Steam Locomotive Committee with the goal of preserving a single steam locomotive and some rolling stock.

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Railroading Heritage of Midwest America/Friends of the 261

The locomotive Everest wanted to save was Milwaukee Road No. 261. This steamer was built by the American Locomotive Company in July 1944 and was quite a pretty unit. It weighed 460,000 pounds, produced around 4,500 HP and 62,119 pounds of tractive effort, and ran on to a top speed of 100 mph. No. 261 was operated by the Milwaukee Road, pulling both freight trains and express passenger trains.

The locomotive was retired in 1956 and was destined for the scrap heap, but the newly formed museum was able to convince Milwaukee Road to donate 261. The locomotive reached the National Railroad Museum in 1958 and stayed there until 1991. That year, the museum struck a deal with North Star Rail which led to 261’s restoration and introduction back onto the rails as an excursion train. Friends of the 261 purchased the locomotive from the National Railroad Museum in 2010 and it continues to ride the rails today.

I bet you’re wondering about that name. I was, too. This museum started three years later than the Illinois Railway Museum and some other museums, but this one is the “national” train museum?

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As one museum guide told me, the christening of this museum as the “national” museum was more by chance. Allegedly, the museum’s founders were trying to choose a name when they realized that no other existing museum had chosen to call themselves the National Railroad Museum, so they took the chance. The museum’s website explains that the name was then made official:

Through a designation by Congress, catalyzed by the work of U.S. Rep. John Byrnes and Sen. Alexander Wiley, the National Railroad Museum became the only congressionally designated railroad museum in the United States. The Museum operates as a privately funded 501(c)(3) educational organization and is among the largest railroad museums in the nation.

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Despite the designation as America’s only Congressionally-recognized train museum, the National Railroad Museum operates like any other train museum without “national” in its name. It’s privately funded with ticket sales and donations helping to keep the lights on. Just like IRM, NRM has an army of volunteers keeping everything running. As of present, the museum is sitting on a collection of almost 80 pieces of rail equipment, thousands of artifacts, and the largest assortment of railroad drumheads all in one place.

The National Railroad Museum offers more information about itself:

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Located on Cooke Memorial Park, and later adding a portion of land owned by Brown County, the National Railroad Museum’s 33 acres is the site of an increasing collection of rolling stock. Some pieces are housed in our beautiful, enclosed Frederick J. Lenfestey Center, while others are on display outside and under the roof of the Victor McCormick Train Pavilion.

As old freight equipment was replaced and passenger travel declined, the Museum acquired unique locomotives such as Union Pacific #4017 “Big Boy,” the Pershing and Dwight D. Eisenhower locomotives, and more pieces representative of U.S. railroad history. The Museum now features more than 70 pieces of rolling stock, 100,000-plus small artifacts, operating / display tracks, seasonal train rides and special events.

The Museum’s staff members and 200+ volunteers warmly welcome and help educate more than 100,000 visitors annually from across the country and around the world.

Small, But Awesome

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The first thing Sheryl and I noticed upon arriving at the NRM property is that it’s a compact facility. There’s a main building, a large indoor area featuring the museum’s star trains, and an outdoor barn featuring even more trains under cover.

The current configuration of NRM is built around circle tracks. There’s a one-mile demonstration loop that circles the museum and a circular spur for equipment that isn’t stored under the barn structures. You can see the whole property from a wooden watchtower.

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Yet, as I said before, what the National Railroad Museum lacks in size it makes up for in content. That is made clear the instant you walk through the museum’s entrance. The National Railroad Museum is configured like the larger institutions in a city. Artifacts are in pretty glass cases and there are large, detailed stories for the pieces you’re looking at.

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I think the NRM has great educational tools for the youth to learn about the past and the future of railroading. There are a lot of interactive and child-friendly bits from education about who used to ride the rails in the past to a playroom full of wooden trains to have fun with.

Said in other words, the NRM is a polished place. It’s a very different experience than the choose-your-own-adventure configuration of the Illinois Railway Museum, and awesome in its own way.

So Much To See

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Our day’s tour started in a room filled with railroading tools. In here, you’ll find an old velocipede handcar. Back in the 1800s, workers maintaining tracks didn’t have the motorized vehicles that exist today. Instead, they piloted hand-operated cars down the track to their destinations. These cars typically had four wheels, but were heavy units that required workers to pump up and down to achieve motion.

An invention to ease the workload was the velocipede, a lighter handcar with just three wheels rather than four. The NRM says that the velocipede was thrusted into existence in 1877 by Michigan farmer George S. Sheffield. His three-wheeled handcar used foot and hand movements for propulsion. This 150-pound handcar was not built as a piece of maintenance of way equipment, but as a commuter vehicle for Sheffield to get from his farm to a town seven miles away.

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The velocipede changed railroading for decades. Workers would use the far lighter velocipede to perform their jobs rather than the bulky, heavy handcars of old. Eventually, technology advanced enough and engines found their way into maintenance equipment, creating the speeder.

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The room with the speeder and the velocipede also contains a large section about the General Motors Aerotrain. In the 1950s, passenger train service was threatened by the freedom offered by the car and the speed offered by airplanes. Trains were so old-school, but General Motors, a dominator in the railroad space, didn’t want to throw in the towel.

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GM created the Aerotrain in response and it was supposed to be the future of passenger train travel, but ended up adding a chapter into GM’s book of baffling, yet gorgeous failures. I’m going to write a story on that one soon, so stay tuned!

When you’re done with that first room, you’ll move to the Bauer Drumhead Gallery. In here, you’ll learn about how America’s passenger rail system worked before Amtrak, from NRM:

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Prior to May 1971, when Amtrak began to operate America’s passenger trains, individual railroads offered their own service. There was considerable competition between railroads, with travelers choosing from several trains to travel from between major cities.

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The top trains, which often had names, were heavily promoted. One device used to advertise and identify these trains was the drumhead – a round, illuminated sign bearing the train’s logo attached to the rear of the last car. The first drumheads were large and round, much like a bass drum, hence their name.

Drumheads generated powerful advertising. Celebrities often posed and had pictures taken near the signs. Those pictures promoted that particular train as a celebrity’s favorite train, which was essentially an endorsement of its service. The Bauer Drumhead Gallery features narrated, touchscreen displays that provide additional information about each drumhead and route.

NRM notes that the first known drumhead was used on the Northern Pacific North Coast Limited train that connected Chicago, Portland, and Seattle in the early 1900s. Many drumheads were scrapped when their respective trains were, so finding an original is something special. Original drumheads are so rare that this picture apparently shows the most you’ll ever see in one place.

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Once you get enough of the drumheads, you’ll move into a large enclosed structure featuring NRM’s rockstar restored equipment. Two locomotives in here steal the show. One of them is Union Pacific #4017 “Big Boy.” These locomotives are known for their sheer size and power. Seeing a Big Boy alone is worth the cost of admission and I’ll hand the mic to Union Pacific:

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Twenty-five Big Boys were built exclusively for Union Pacific Railroad, the first of which was delivered in 1941. The locomotives were 132 feet long and weighed 1.2 million pounds. Because of their great length, the frames of the Big Boys were “hinged,” or articulated, to allow them to negotiate curves. They had a 4-8-8-4 wheel arrangement, which meant they had four wheels on the leading set of “pilot” wheels which guided the engine, eight drivers, another set of eight drivers, and four wheels following which supported the rear of the locomotive. The massive engines normally operated between Ogden, Utah, and Cheyenne, Wyo.

There are seven Big Boys on public display in various cities around the country. They can be found in St. Louis, Missouri; Dallas, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; Denver, Colorado; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

These beasts weighed 1,198,500 pounds (locomotive plus tender), produced around 7,000 drawbar HP and had about 135,375 pounds of maximum tractive effort. To further illustrate how mind-boggling huge a Big Boy is, Union Pacific points out that the 133 feet of the locomotive and its tender are nearly twice as long as the typical modern diesel-electric locomotive and more than half of the 232-foot length of a Boeing 747-400.

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Next to the Big Boy is another piece of history. Yes, that green locomotive is a British streamliner, but with the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower emblazoned on the side. NRM’s display describes everything you need to know:

The National Railroad Museum is proud to have the only A4 Class locomotive in the United States. This British locomotive was renamed for General Dwight D. Eisenhower after World War II. Along with this engine are two London and North Eastern Railroad cars that were converted for Eisenhower’s use during the war – all three are now housed in the Museum’s Lenfestey Center.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower locomotive arrived at the National Railroad Museum on Memorial Day in 1964. Dwight D. Eisenhower himself visited the museum in September of that year. The locomotive also made international news a few years ago when the National Railroad Museum loaned the piece to the National Railway Museum of York, England in 2012 for “The Great Gathering” of 2013. As part of the loan agreement, the National Railway Museum performed a cosmetic restoration of the locomotive. The locomotive returned to the National Railroad Museum in June 2014.

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The National Railroad Museum also completed restoration work on London and North Eastern cars #1591 and #1592. These two passenger cars were converted for use on the two trains assigned to Eisenhower while in England, one of which was used as Eisenhower’s personal quarters and meeting space for his staff. The #1591 was restored to look as it did post-war when it was donated to the Museum. The #1592 is now complete with armor plating and it looks as it did during the war.

You read that right, one of those passenger cars features thick armor plating. The LNER Class A4 was more than a looker, but it was capable of sustaining 90 mph in regular service. In 1938, LNER Class A4 4468 Mallard broke the world speed record for steam locomotives, hitting 126 mph. That’s a record that remains today! There are just a handful of these locomotives left in existence and only one here in the United States.

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I’m going to stop here before I get too carried away. Sheryl and I drove three hours one way to see this museum and it was worth the time investment. There is so much history here that you can spend your entire day on this property and you will have left learning something new. I know I did.

You can even ride a train, too! The museum uses a diesel-electric switcher to run laps of the mile of the demonstration track. It’s a slow 5 mph ride, but for $5 you get two relaxing laps of the facility either in a historic passenger car or on a flat car converted into an open-air passenger car. I’m told you might even be able to score a ride in the cab of the locomotive, too.

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The National Railroad Museum is located at 2285 S. Broadway in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s presently open daily and tickets are $13 for adults, $11 for college students and seniors, and $9 for most children. Kids under 2 and museum members get free admission. For full transparency: I paid for everything that day and I’m not even sure if the museum knows we exist. Anyway, if you’re even slightly interested in trains or have kids who love trains, I recommend a visit; you won’t regret it.

(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)

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Fasterlivingmagazine
Fasterlivingmagazine
19 days ago

Love your museum tour articles! Not train related but theres an excellent motorcycle museum in upstate NY called Motorcyclepedia. Among their extensive collection of random motorcycles throughout history they also claim the largest collection of Indian motorcycles.

Last edited 19 days ago by Fasterlivingmagazine
Nicklab
Nicklab
15 days ago

Motorcyclepedia is in Newburgh and just 1/2 hour north in Kingston is the Trolley Museum of New York. There’s also the Catskill Mountain Railroad in Kingston as well where they do scenic train excursions

Daniel Davis
Daniel Davis
20 days ago

Mercedes, love the museum reviews. If you keep going I’ll keep paying.

Honda Fit is the Answer
Honda Fit is the Answer
20 days ago

Mercedes, have you ever been to the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis? Easy day trip for you guys and they have a very large collection of trains/street cars/mule cars, automobiles/trucks/buses/motorcycles, even a plane and a tugboat.

It’s within driving distance of where you guys are, and there’s lots of fun stuff there. They have:

A Panama Canal muleA Stanley SteamerA Chrysler Turbine Car *and* a Ford turbine truckA full-sized GM AerotrainAn XRON-1 Rotorcycle (a small ‘personal helicopter’ concept commissioned by the Navy and powered by a four-cylinder Porsche engine)A Virgin Hyperloop pod
There’s a ton of stuff there, and more in storage – maybe you could sweet-talk them into a behind the scenes tour. Regardless, I highly recommend a visit.

Last edited 20 days ago by Honda Fit is the Answer
My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
20 days ago

That looks like an amazing day (or two) out. Thank you for sharing. I hope to read more.

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