If the 'Texas' could talk

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, December 27, 2018

Western & Atlantic 4-4-0 No. 12, the Texas, is the star of the newly opened railroad exhibit at the Atlanta History Center. Kevin P. Keefe photo
The locomotive is mostly black now, but it sparkles as its brass fittings reflect the spotlights shining down from above and the sunlight streaming in from giant windows along West Paces Ferry Road. As you sit there on a bench, contemplating the machine filling the vast room in the Atlanta History Center, it’s possible to feel you’re in the company of royalty.

That’s the reaction I had last week during an afternoon spent with Western & Atlantic 4-4-0 No. 12, famously known as the Texas. It was a pilgrimage I’d been planning for a couple of years, ever since the announcement in 2015 that this Civil War icon would be restored and take center stage in an exhibit called “Locomotion: Railroads and the Making of Atlanta.”

The Texas was installed in its new home on May 4, 2017, having returned from a long hiatus at the North Carolina Transportation Museum at Spencer, where it received a painstaking restoration led by Scott Lindsay’s Steam Operations Corp. The new exhibit at the History Center opened November 17.

Now I was standing there in the Texas’ presence, admiring its classic lines, inspecting its simple running gear, relaxing in its Spartan cab, reliving its story as told in the surrounding exhibits. If you love the classic 4-4-0 of the 19th century — and I do — then you can’t do better than the Texas, turned out by Danforth, Cooke & Co. of Paterson, N.J., in 1856 during the heyday of the American type.  

Alone with it for nearly an hour, I wondered what it might say if it could talk. Would it be pleased with its “new” utilitarian appearance, a good-faith attempt to show how it looked for most of its 50-year service life? Would it miss the earlier gaudy trappings of its long residence at the old Atlanta Cyclorama, its red paint and balloon stack harkening back to the Civil War era? And what would it make of the sound and fury that has accompanied its latest resurrection? How much would it care about that day 156 years ago when it was drafted into service in the Great Locomotive Chase?

The story is familiar enough. On April 12, 1862, a band of raiders led by Union operative James J. Andrews commandeered a sister 4-4-0, the General, at Big Shanty, today known as Kennesaw, at milepost 28 north of Atlanta. The Yankees bolted northbound up the W&A toward Chattanooga, intent on burning as many bridges and tearing up as much track as possible. 

Four decades after its role in the April 12, 1862, Great Locomotive Chase, the Texas, renumbered 212 and shorn of its name, is pictured on a branch line at Emerson, Ga., in 1903. L. E. Menkee photo, Kenan Research Center at Atlanta History Center, Wilbur G. Kurtz Sr. collection
Andrews’ Raid would fail. The raiders hadn’t counted on the astonishing resolve of one William A. Fuller, the W&A conductor whose train the enemy had stolen. Fuller and a small contingent of railroaders and loyalists chased the General on foot and handcar until they could grab other locomotives in pursuit, first the tiny Yonah, then the William R. Smith, and finally the Texas, which had been leading a southbound train and had to chase in reverse. The General ran out of fuel near Ringgold, Ga., approximately 87 miles north of Big Shanty. Andrews and his men scattered into the woods and nearly all of them soon were captured. Most were later hanged as spies.

That brief moment of glory might be considered the defining moment for the Texas, thanks to the folklore machine that included movies by Buster Keaton and Walt Disney, as well as numerous books. But in truth, the engine’s bravura performance was of little military significance.

Instead, I like what the History Center has done: turned the focus on the Texas as an emblem of Atlanta’s rise to international prominence, fueled in part by its status as a great railroad center. It’s a message conveyed beautifully by the interpretive material surrounding the Texas. Here, the emphasis is on the most meaningful context, always the goal of thoughtful historic preservation. 

“This marks an important point of arrival for the Atlanta History Center,” says Jackson McQuigg, the Center’s vice president of properties. “I’ve worked here for 22 years and we’ve always acknowledged the importance of railroads in our city’s history. However, we’ve had to tell that story solely with smaller artifacts, photos, and other interpretation. And this in a city that originally had a city seal featuring a locomotive!

“With the Texas, we have Atlanta’s history encapsulated with one object, a Western & Atlantic 4-4-0. It is in a glass box smack dab on the front of our main building for all to see. It’s a defining object for us.”

Because only a small fraction of the original engine remains, the Atlanta History Center has restored the Texas to its appearance in 1886, when it was one of the workaday 4-4-0s that were propelling Atlanta to greatness. Kevin P. Keefe photo
The Center’s decision to present the Texas it appeared in 1886 was, in my mind, a refreshingly gutty call. The staff must have known the decision would stir up controversy, and sure enough, a brief dustup ensued, mostly on social media. The choice to interpret 1886 and not 1862 was offensive to some in the cohort of the Lost Cause. The “political correctness” shibboleth came up more than a few times.  

But what is the greater meaning of the Texas? The engine’s service life extended beyond the war by more than four decades, including many years switching for the W&A before living out its days in branchline and industrial service. In 1886, it was just another dirty W&A steam engine, converted to coal, its wartime escapade largely forgotten, playing a role in building the Atlanta of the future.

There is also a practical reason for the engine’s current appearance: the Texas of 1862 is largely gone. All that remains of the original locomotive is the bell stand and a small portion of the frame. Subsequent rebuilds and re-boilerings have eliminated all but a trace of April 12, 1862.

It’s not like the heroics of Fuller and his crew are forgotten. Hardly. For the record, the History Center exhibit delivers the essential details of the Chase, and if anyone wants to know more, all they need do is visit the General up in Kennesaw at the Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History, or the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center near Dalton, both fine institutions. Or, for that matter, drive north along CSX on U.S. 41, where you’ll find memorials of all kinds, most of them honoring the role of the Confederate chasers.   

None of this will likely change anyone’s feelings about how the Texas should look. Minds are usually made up about these things. 

Still, as I meditated there in the presence of the Texas, I kept asking myself, “I wonder what the Texas itself would say.”

Later, walking out to the parking lot, I heard train whistles echoing across the city, evidence of the hundreds of trains and thousands of freight cars moving in and out of the city every day, filling the huge CSX Hulsey and NS Inman yards, easing along a spider web of main lines. I thought about the recent headline “Norfolk Southern Moving Its Corporate Headquarters to Atlanta.” I thought about all those years a lowly 4-4-0 went about its business, helping to build a new city out of the Civil War’s ashes. I concluded the Texas would tell us it’s just fine.

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