The “Age of Steam” collection began life as a quaint exhibit during the 1963 State Fair of Texas. The fair was themed “Our American Heritage” and featured displays which appealed to a growing interest in the nation’s past. The collection was established as a tangible reminder of the railroad’s enormous impact on the development of Dallas and the nation.
The exhibit is still located within its original 1.8 acre site in Fair Park adjacent to the former Texas & Pacific Railway main line to Dallas. Constructed in 1873, the T&P line intersected the new Houston & Texas Central Route built from Houston a year earlier. The crossing of these two railroads just west of Fair Park set Dallas on a course of unprecedented growth and prosperity eventually making it the center for commerce in the Southwest.
The original 1963 exhibit was a modest but significant start at telling the story of railroading’s golden age. It was a collaborative effort of Joseph Rucker, Jr., then Assistant General Manager of the State Fair, and Everett DeGolyer, Jr., an influential Dallas philanthropist who shared his father’s love of railroads and Western history. Rucker, who traveled exclusively by rail had an interest in preserving the last vestiges of first class travel in a Pullman sleeping car. DeGolyer, charter member and president of the newly organized Southwest Railroad Historical Society (SRHS) was negotiating with the Dallas Union Terminal Company to acquire its venerable old steam locomotive, the “7 Spot.” In early 1963 the two men crossed paths over their interest in 7-Spot’s future and combined efforts to bring it to Fair Park. In August of that year, the State Fair of Texas successfully bid on the soon-to-be displaced Dallas yard office of the H&TC Railway. A few weeks later, the circa 1905 wood frame structure was moved from the path of downtown Interstate 30 construction and relocated to Fair Park.
These two relics of rail history joined another steam locomotive already on display at Fair Park. T&P #909 was a gift to the City of Dallas in 1957. It was displayed on track originally constructed for the Transportation Exhibit at the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. The T&P had enjoyed a long relationship with the Fair; engine #909 replaced an earlier locomotive, and served as a tribute to the steam age while giving the T&P a presence at the State Fair.
The original “Age of Steam” exhibit was met with great enthusiasm and became a regular attraction among fairgoers in subsequent years. During the 1960s the State Fair made modest capital investments in the exhibit, supplemented by volunteers from the Southwest Railroad Historical Society. Beginning in 1964 several “heavyweight” Pullman passenger cars were added, eventually making up a complete 1920s era passenger train. Today these priceless cars are among the most complete and original in existence. They still make up the core of the museum’s present collection.
While there is no evidence of a detailed master plan, the original concept of the exhibit provided for limited growth beyond 1963. Early correspondence between Rucker and DeGolyer reveals a mutually agreed upon plan for a rail themed attraction featuring complete passenger and freight trains along with a depot and supporting structures. By the late 1960s, the exhibit had certainly taken on this appearance although little if any consideration had been given to the long-term care and upkeep of the collection.
Meanwhile, the SRHS published a long-awaited book titled, Iron Horses of the Santa Fe Trail. Released in 1965, the book remains the definitive work that chronicles the design, construction, and use of steam and early diesel-electric locomotives on the Santa Fe Railway. A small cadre of dedicated volunteers from the Society continued to provide basic maintenance at the exhibit, but lacked adequate funding for major restoration projects. During non-fair times, the exhibit was open on Sundays as part of an attempt to make the fair’s Midway a year-round attraction. Originally staffed by the Fair, the exhibit would later be manned by SRHS volunteers with 50% of the proceeds going to the organization.
Additional pieces of rolling stock were added during the mid-1960s. Several donations of rolling stock had to await the construction of additional exhibit track. In those days, the railroad companies maintained public relations offices with representatives in Dallas who were somewhat sympathetic to the demise of the steam locomotive. They realized the value of donating significant pieces to the exhibit and having a presence at the State Fair. Rucker and DeGolyer were both eloquent writers and their letters appealing for donations were very persuasive to railroad officials. Their requests yielded many prized pieces in our collection, not the least of which was the world’s largest steam locomotive from Union Pacific in 1965.
While these benevolent acts resulted in some outstanding acquisitions, the railroads considered these gifts the extent of their contribution. In other words, they expected railroad museums and municipalities to provide for the perpetual care of their collections once donated. Further, railroad officials frowned on organizations that allowed their rolling stock to deteriorate, which reflected poorly on the image of the lines. While in service, these pieces were refurbished an average of every seven years. It was a costly commitment to continue such a schedule of maintenance on equipment that was essentially non-revenue producing in a museum setting.
The 1970s would see a shift in priorities at the State Fair. Mr. Rucker’s retirement from the General Manager position in 1971 and Everett DeGolyer’s death in 1976 resulted in a loss of the Age of Steam’s principal advocates. The Fair’s new general manager placed an emphasis on other activities. Their capital budget was already spread thin over the 277 acre park and with the aging exhibit buildings requiring greater attention, the original investment in the “trains” was considered adequate. Following Mr. DeGolyer’s passing, the Dallas Arboretum would be created from the family’s estate but no provisions were made for the Age of Steam. Meanwhile the effects of time and exposure had begun to show on the nearly 15 year old collection of trains. The SRHS attempted to fill the void but lacked the continued support from the Fair or the City.
In the face of growing indifference among park officials, a somewhat insular SRHS labored to keep the exhibit open one day a week and maintain the collection. The SRHS, originally chartered as a literary organization in 1962, had seen its role at the exhibit move from an auxiliary group to an unofficial custodian of an aging collection of trains. It was a day-to-day existence, long on passion and short on funding. By 1985 it was apparent that a new vision was needed.
The next five years saw significant changes in the Age of Steam and its environment. A professional consultant was hired by the SRHS to chart a new course and more adequately address the organization's role in the exhibit. New bylaws were created allowing for an expanded board, creation of a paid part-time executive director position, and most significantly, the SRHS would open the museum four days a week on a year-round basis. The term “exhibit” was dropped in favor of “museum.” Beginning in 1986, the SRHS would officially do business as The Age of Steam Railroad Museum, with 50% of the proceeds still going to the State Fair.
In 1986 during preparations for the Sesquicentennial State Fair, the Park saw a resurgence of interest among historians and preservationists. Several improvements were made in the park, along with a growing advocacy for a major capital program to restore the original 1936 buildings. A new master plan was proposed using the original 1936 Fair as a design template for architecture and layout. The Age of Steam would only receive an honorable mention in the final plan a few years later. Meanwhile, the museum was selectively adding new pieces of rolling stock for the first time since 1969. Amtrak GG-1 electric locomotive #4906 was acquired in 1984, and prior to the Sesquicentennial Fair, Union Pacific Railroad donated locomotive #6913, a freshly painted “Centennial” diesel-electric unit.
In 1987, the City of Dallas and the State Fair entered into a new management agreement. The Dallas Parks and Recreation Department assumed responsibility for management of the park on a year-round basis. A separate Fair Park Administration was established by the Parks Department to provide on-site management. The City placed an emphasis on arts and cultural activities throughout the year, creating an environment that was more conducive to the viability of the permanent museum institutions. The State Fair of Texas would lease the park from the City during the month of October.
Under a new Executive Director, the early 1990s were a period of growth and maturity for the Age of Steam. The museum began to see modest gains in attendance while Fair Park in general was experiencing similar increases. With the ownership of the collection officially conveyed to the SRHS in 1989, and a supportive Fair Park management in place, the museum’s destiny was becoming more predictable and stable. This, at a time when the other park institutions were seeing huge increases in attendance. The Science Place in particular had subscribed to the new trend in museums - animated, interactive exhibits that entertain as well as educate. Their first and most successful venture was that of the robot dinosaur exhibit which greatly broadened their market and drew a new clientele to Fair Park. While not benefiting directly from the Science Place’s success, the Age of Steam would draw on the growing interest in Fair Park as a year-round destination.
In 1992, in lieu of its traditional State Fair gate, the museum opened a new entrance along Washington Street, using the venerable H&TC depot as a visitor center and gift shop. Despite the improved surroundings, the aging collection of trains lacked capital funding and additional real estate for expansion. These were critical needs for a capital-intensive museum if it was to become a viable institution. Unfortunately the SRHS lacked the recognition and respect accorded more established museums. There were also questions about how an expanded railroad museum might fit into a restored Fair Park, more specifically, if it would belong.
Meanwhile, the Age of Steam was striving to increase attendance and revenue by attracting a broader audience. A second paid staff person was hired in 1996 and new programs were developed to attract young families and visitors who might not have experienced the “glory days” of railroading. Previously, exhibits were fashioned by, and appealed to, a more esoteric group of train enthusiasts. An emphasis was placed on an interactive experience for visitors who were less initiated with railroads. This was an effort to foster an appreciation of the rich heritage of the collection and the museum’s efforts to preserve it for a new generation. However, the authenticity of the collection was in no way compromised; rail enthusiasts who visited the museum still found their experience enjoyable. In fact, increased revenue from a broader audience would yield additional funding for restoration of significant pieces in the collection throughout the 1990s, thus enhancing their appeal to purists.
The Museum had become a viable, largely self-sustaining institution with a four person professional paid staff. In 2004, the Museum’s Board of Trustees adopted a new organizational form of governance that was more responsive to the community and meet the needs of its diverse audience. Programs were expanded and exhibits created that had greater relevance to a broader cross-section of visitors. Using funds generated by special events and grants from local foundations, the Museum also began an ambitious program to cosmetically restore the exteriors of the rolling stock collection. The overall appearance of the trains was improved over the next several years, along with the public's perception of the museum.
By 2005 the visitor experience had been greatly enhanced through improved exhibits and interpretation. Several of the museum’s field trip programs had become staples in Dallas area school curricula. These educational programs are also recognized by local arts and education advocacy organizations including Big Thought and Arts Partners. For many years the museum received supplemental funding from the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs through its Cultural Organization Program, as well as funding from the Texas Commission on the Arts. Local foundations have also contributed to several recent major restoration projects that have received national recognition. Amtrak in a regular exhibitor at the museum with their popular Texas Eagle equipment displays attracting thousands of visitors each year. Other successful events include Artrain USA, a nationwide tour of fine art aboard a five car train. Perhaps the most successful endeavor in recent years has been “Day Out with Thomas,” an event centered around PBS’s endearing train character, Thomas the Tank Engine. Partnering with the City of Grapevine’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, the museum attracts over 30,000 Thomas fans, both young and old, each year.
In 2006, the Age of Steam changed its name and identity to the Museum of the American Railroad. This was for several reasons: 1) the technology represented in the collection had extended beyond the age of steam – it included later, 20th Century examples of diesel and electric locomotives, along with newer post-WWII streamlined passenger cars; 2) the collection represented the high points of railroading on a nation-wide level; and, 3) the museum sought to be up to date and timely, rather than antiquarian.
To coincide with the name change, the museum staff created a document titled Visions, which outlined a plan for enhancement and expansion of its collections and programs. The document was an important springboard to a more focused, professional approach to providing for the museum's future. In the Summer of 2006, the museum engaged M. Goodwin Associates of Los Angeles to prepare a long-term Strategic Plan. Presented in the Fall, the Plan identified a number of strengths and weaknesses in the organization and its collection. The museum’s greatest strength was in its collection, while its greatest weakness was the location and the inability to expand at its Fair Park site. The Strategic Plan provided for a greatly expanded and enhanced museum, primarily through the recommendation of a new site with a minimum of 9-12 acres. The Plan went on to address the steps necessary to affect a move and create facilities & staffing sufficient to realize the potential of the collection.
In 2007, the City of Frisco, Texas contacted the museum after having read its Visions document online. The City, which was created by the arrival of the St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco) Railway in 1902, had an interest in developing a permanent attraction that celebrated its railroad heritage. In 2008, after several meetings and lengthy discussions, museum and city officials reached a tentative agreement to relocate the collection and operations to a 12.5 acre site just south of Frisco’s Heritage Center. The agreement with Frisco met nearly all of the criteria set forth in the museum’s 2006 Strategic Plan.
Preliminary design and engineering of the Frisco site began in 2009, which provided for nearly one mile of trackage, and several permanent buildings to accommodate the museum’s collections. In May of that year, the museum and the City entered into a formal agreement to relocate to Frisco by 2011. The agreement was unanimously approved by Frisco’s City Council.
In May 2011, the museum held a groundbreaking for the new site, and construction began on what will surely become the premiere museum of railroad history and technology in the Southwest. For more information on the museum's relocation to Frisco click here.