Railroads at the Henry Ford Museum: Prepare to be overwhelmed

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Saturday, June 02, 2018

Michigan’s Henry Ford museum and its sister attraction, Greenfield Village, rarely hit in the top 10 of must see places for those of us who appreciate railroad history. But they should be. The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village, are among the great institutions of American history. A recent visit to Dearborn in suburban Detroit, my first in 10 years, reinforced this notion.

Far from a car museum and a collection of old buildings, they’re a lively look at how America moves, innovates, and changes. Along with a recreation of Edison’s lab and the Wright Brothers bicycle store, you’ll see (and can sit in the back of) the Rosa Parks bus, Charles Kuralt’s On the Road motorhome, and the limousine that President John F. Kennedy was riding in that awful November 1963 day in Dallas. There are farming implements, an Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, and a Ford Model T broken down into elemental parts. There are airplanes (don’t forget the Ford Tri-Motor). The weekend we visited was a Civil War living history re-enactment, complete with an artillery demonstration in an open area. In the summer, antique baseball teams takes to the field. This summary hits just a few significant items. There’s more here than you could see in a week. It is American history on full display.

In such a place, railroads have to play a big role, and they do.

The moment you enter Greenfield Village, before you do anything else, you’re confronted with a set of standard gauge tracks with a wig wag signal guarding the crossing and a standpipe from the legendary Kentucky & Tennessee nearby.

A few paces away is a working roundhouse replicated from the original 1884 structure at Marshall, Mich., on the Detroit, Toledo & Milwaukee Railroad. Beyond the Armstrong turntable, you’ll find the roundhouse, where the engines are maintained and rebuilt. During our late May visit, a new tender tank had been riveted together for one of the inhabitants and was ready to go into service.

Nearby is a 50-ton coal tower, four years old, that is used daily for its original purpose. Outside of the one in Chama, N.M., that sees occasional demonstrations, I cannot think of another coaling tower in this land that fulfills its mission to feed its charges.

The operating locomotive roster is impressive: 1873 Torch Lake, an 0-6-4 that is the oldest operating locomotive in America on a regular basis now that B&O Railroad Museum’s William Mason (1856) is out of service. Detroit Lima & Northern 4-4-0 No. 7, put into service a few years ago, represents the classic American type of the Gilded Age. Even the Edison, an 0-4-0T that was heavily modified to become a 4-4-0, is agreeable to the sights and sounds. How many places in America do you know that fields three operating locomotives? Not many. But here’s one.

About the only thing that does not feel right are the open bench seat coaches, made to easily accommodate the masses on a train ride on a 3-mile loop around the village. They’re better suited to a Six Flags amusement park, but they do they job and they’re at least in muted colors so as to not attract attention.  

Inside the Henry Ford, railroads have a place, as well. Overwhelming everything is Chesapeake & Ohio No. 1601, one of two 2-6-6-6 Alleghany types left. This 1941 giant is a favorite for just about everyone passing by who feels the need for a photo of himself or herself standing on the front footboard of this monster from the mountains of West Virginia. The cab is open as well. There’s also a replica of the DeWitt Clinton and train, a wedge snowplow, a caboose, Henry Ford’s 1920 heavyweight office car, and a 1926 Ingersoll-Rand boxcab diesel, among the first of its kind.

I could go on about this place, but you get the point. Plan a visit here. Set aside at least two days. More if you can. Prepare to be overwhelmed. You’ll be happy you did.





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