Where the Central of Georgia lives on

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 20, 2020

A historic aerial view shows the extent of the Central of Georgia's station and shop complex at Savannah, Ga., now preserved as the Georgia State Railroad Museum.
The South is home to several notable railroad museums, including two — the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga — that are among the nation’s best.

But there are others worth visiting, including one of my newest favorites, the Georgia State Railroad Museum in Savannah. Although it’s home to a modest collection of locomotives and cars, GSRM can boast of something very special: a campus of buildings that make up a remarkably complete terminal from the age of steam. 

As a matter of fact, “age of steam” isn’t a nearly specific enough term to encompass the wide sweep of history represented in Savannah. Much of this former Central of Georgia complex dates back to before the Civil War. The museum touts the place as the “most complete antebellum railroad [shop complex] of its kind in the world” (it was largely spared by Sherman’s troops in 1864) and it has earned a designation as a National Historic Landmark District. 

Last week I had a chance to stroll among its ancient buildings, some dating to 1853, and you really get a feel for 19th century railroading. There’s the roundhouse, of course, first constructed in 1853 and modernized for larger locomotives in the 1920s. But walk a little further and you’ll find the original blacksmith shop; the coach and paint shops; part of the original machine shops; and a fascinating, ornate, 125-foot-tall smokestack that was fed by all the buildings in the complex.

The Savannah museum features an 85-foot turntable that is part of the short train ride around the complex. Typical of many roundhouses in the South, the stalls have no doors. Kevin P. Keefe
To make the experience even richer, across Louisville Road is the original Central of Georgia passenger station, a Victorian gem built in 1860 and now home to Savannah’s visitors center and a separate museum of city history inside the former train shed. The station ended its days of regular service on April 30, 1971, when Southern’s Nancy Hanks II from Atlanta tied up for the last time, a day ahead of Amtrak’s inauguration.   

The entire museum site is managed by Savannah’s Coastal Heritage Society, an umbrella organization that oversees six local museums and historic sites in the area. I, for one, take great satisfaction in the fact that a railroad museum is considered an essential part of the Society’s mission. 

Overseeing the CofG shops complex is Terry Koller, director of railroad operations. A former member of the Merchant Marine who worked on steam-powered vessels, he joined the railroad museum 17 years ago, earned a degree in historic preservation from the Savannah College of Art & Design, and has become active in national railroad organizations. Among Koller’s current projects is getting the museum’s one operating steam locomotive — Savannah Central 0-4-0T No. 30 (Rogers, 1913) — through its FRA 1472 inspection and certification.

Koller says his shift from ocean-going to railroad steam was a natural one. “It’s really all the same principles, just wheels on the ground versus a hull in the water,” he says. “But it’s a different set of challenges. At a railroad museum, visitors get so close to what’s happening.”

Among the items displayed inside the roundhouse are two Central of Georgia locomotives, 2-8-0 No. 223 and SW1 No. 1. Kevin P. Keefe
Meanwhile, Koller has other equipment to tend. With No. 30 out of action for the moment, train movements are handled by one of the museum’s two small diesels, a pair of GE 44-tonners numbered 119 and 7069 and lettered for Savannah Central, an “in-house” railroad. Both fit the museum’s bottom-line operating requirement: its one-car train, both locomotive and coach, have to fit on the 85-foot turntable.

The gems of the collection are inside the roundhouse. The most important, in my book, is CofG 2-8-0 No. 223, built by Baldwin in 1907 and retired by the railroad in 1952. The elegantly proportioned Consolidation is preserved sans boiler jacket. With any luck, the 223 someday could be joined by another significant CofG steam locomotive, 2-8-0 No. 509, displayed in Macon. The museum has been involved in a long-term negotiation to acquire the 509 but the effort has stalled and the ball appears to be in Macon’s court. Displaying the 223 and 509 together would be the ideal outcome. 

In the next stall is CofG SW1 switcher No. 1, the railroad’s first diesel, a former EMD demonstrator purchased in 1939 and capable at some point of being operated. “We were so fortunate to get that back,” says Koller. “It’s an essential part of our collection and there’s nothing much wrong with it.”

The head house of the CofG station is a Victorian gem built in 1860. Savannah was spared the Civil War destruction suffered by Atlanta. Kevin P. Keefe
Other power in the roundhouse includes Savannah & Atlanta GP35 No. 2715, built by EMD in 1965; a 1905 Porter 0-4-0T lettered for Atlantic Steel Company; and another Porter 0-4-0F (fireless), a narrow-gauge engine built in 1921 for use in a sugar beet factory. There are also several examples of rolling stock, including a pair of former business cars and a former Southern Railway segregated Jim Crow coach.

Koller says the museum is always in the market for more equipment, “so long as it’s Central of Georgia,” but further acquisitions might be difficult. The main connection to the shops complex was lost years ago when a key bridge was taken out, and the remaining bridge leading to the CofG trainshed is an arched brick affair built in 1853, its tracks long removed. Whatever comes in will have to be on a truck.

The museum has its challenges. Its current funding is limited to what it gets from the city of Savannah to cover operating costs, and what it can raise through grants, donations, admissions, and special events. The latter are especially important, and GSRM is active with family-oriented operations such as a Harry Potter Hogwarts Express and its seasonal Santa Claus trains. It helps that the Savannah Children’s Museum is on the property, currently operating mainly outdoors in the former CofG carpentry shop but eventually set to move indoors into the cavernous paint shop.

Among nationally known railroads, the Central of Georgia had a low profile, but in fact it was a potent mid-20th century Class I carrier, with nearly 2,000 route miles, 4-8-2s and 4-8-4s on its roster, and, with Man o’ War and Nancy Hanks II, a pair of nifty streamliners. Its memory is well served by the Georgia State Railroad Museum. 

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