By Audrey Brown
A woman and her young son stand observing an exhibit explaining Abraham Lincoln’s railroad legacy inside the Historic Railpark & Train Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The boy points enthusiastically at pictures of Lincoln, trains, and slaves surrounding tracks as he asks his mom questions.
“What’s that train? Why are there so many people there? What does Abraham Lincoln have to do with trains?” His curiosity delights his mother.
Karen Williams, of Bowling Green, brings her son Aaron to the museum often.
“He loves vehicles of all kinds, and especially trains. His room is full of trains,” Karen Williams said. “I bring him here often because he loves trains, and I love that he gets such an exposure to history here while he can admire the trains. The displays and the people who work here can give him a history lesson that he can’t quite get anywhere else.”
This year was the 10th anniversary of the museum, one of Bowling Green’s top tourism spots. The museum held a senior celebrations dinner, where Bowling Green Mayor Bruce Wilkerson declared Sept. 2 to be historic railpark day.
Built in 1925, the L&N Depot, as it was originally called, was once a popular train station and a hub for Bowling Green’s economic foundation. It would see upwards of 20 trains per day, some carrying supplies or mail, others carrying people.
In 1979, the building shut down. No more trains passed through, and it became an unofficial shelter for the homeless. Some tiles in the main waiting area still have scuffs from a time when homeless people would create fires in the building to stay warm, according to museum volunteer Miliska Knauft.
Then, in the early 2000s, volunteers called The Historic Railroad Committee (Now called the Friends of the L&N Depot) began to collect trains and restore them. The first cars were placed there in 2002 and volunteers continued to gather and work on the trains until 2006.
In 2007, the same building that was once a bustling train station reopened as a museum, keeping much of the original infrastructure.
The museum itself is two floors. The first floor is small and features mostly pop-up boards with text. The second floor is bigger and features more unique exhibits, like Civil War uniform displays, a display of nails used on tracks, and a coat rack that holds common attire homeless people would wear.
In front of the entrance to the museum sits a train used for touring, the 796 E-8 Locomotive.
The museum is packed with information on various train types and people involved with trains. Posters and displays line the walls and floor, densely packed with words detailing the history of the museum and the trains that passed through it when it was still a working train station.
Some patrons to the museum actually rode on the trains when it was a working station, or have family who did. Ronnie Burgette recalls times when his sister rode the train from this station. “She would catch a train here every day and travel to U of L,” he said.
Burgette said came back to this museum out of nostalgia, but also out of curiosity. “I just wanted to look at the building too, because it’s old like me,” he said while laughing.
On the busiest days in the summertime, this tiny museum can see up to 60 people all crowding around the exhibits. On a recent day when Burgette visited, however, there were no more than five at a time.
The wide variety of exhibits guests can observe range from Lincoln’s involvement with the railroad system, to Civil War displays and how the L&N Depot was right on the border of the south and the north, so both sides wanted control of it. The museum also covers the negative aspects of the culture at the time, emphasizing the problems black visitors and workers faced, as well as the homeless and the community once based around the train system.
Interactive exhibits give visitors the sense of working on a train. There are three in the museum: Sam Travis, the cook; Billy Byrd, the engineer; and an unnamed conductor. All three of these jobs came with plenty of hardships, which each exhibit discusses.
The second floor also features a small theater room with the same clip played on repeat. It is a video interview of a black train worker discussing the difficulties he faced working with the majority of guests, who were white. For example, he describes the time one guest refused to call him by his actual name.
The staff of the museum includes volunteers and regularly paid employees.
Miliska Knauft has been a volunteer at the museum since 2009. She carries around a handful of notecards, which she uses when she gives tours of the 796 E-8 Locomotive.
She believes the museum would not function if it weren’t for volunteers.
“This place is mostly volunteer run,” she said. “We have a lot of hardworking people that come here in their free time to make sure things go smoothly.”
She says, for the most part, volunteer women like her run tours while volunteer men generally work on the trains.
“Most maintenance volunteers are men,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of women who know how to keep up trains. Women mostly do the tours.”
Knauft enjoys the history of the building most of all. She likes to describe the architecture of the museum to those who ask, passionately recounting how much of the infrastructure like the floors in the main meeting room are the same floors from when the building was originally built.
Cory Burdette began working at the museum in August. As a history major at Western Kentucky University, he has a passion for all that museums have to offer. His ultimate goal is to work at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
His favorite thing about working at a museum is seeing people’s reactions. He says you never know what people are going to take from the experience, and he loves being able to make people happy. He jokes around with visitors, and keeps a smile on his face to make people feel welcome.
He especially loves giving tours. He says it’s like “being a history teacher without the responsibility of being a teacher.”
Burdette said he wants to help make history come alive.
“I feel like museums do that,” he said. “You can read a history book and learn a story, but when you come to a museum and you can see all the things here; see all the things that existed in that time . . . there’s just nothing like it.”
Planning a visit
A visit to the museum including a tour of the train costs $12 for adults, $10 or seniors, and $6 for children ages four and up. This cost includes a tour of the museum’s 796 E-8 Locomotive train that sits near the entrance. Visitors can explore how a train would have looked during its run time, while a tour guide provides background information on the conductor room, engine room, mail car, dining car, sleeper car, and president of the L&N Depot’s office car. If you want to skip the train tour, the price is halved.
Visitors can also participate in escape rooms, where they must work with others to escape being locked into a train specifically designated for this event. This feature is not included in the museum visit, must be booked in advance, and is an added cost of $26 per person.
Aside from museum-hosted services, people can also rent parts of the museum for private events such as weddings, birthdays, and school field trips.
In December, the museum hosted a Polar Express event. Children got to meet Santa, who read storybooks to them and, at the end of the reading, gave them a bell, like in the movie.
The museum’s website has a calendar detailing smaller events. Learn more at www.historicrailpark.com.