Here’s an idea.
After watching the Lionel train travel its track in the LSU Museum of Art’s antique toy exhibit, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, pay a visit to the Louisiana Art & Science Museum just down the hill.
Because this was once the Baton Rouge stop for the real trains of the era represented by the Lionel set. And this is where the conductor made his two-word announcement on a daily basis.
Oh, you know it. If you’re not old enough to remember, surely you’ve heard it in movies.
“All aboard!” he’d yell.
“And the train would leave on time,” Elizabeth Weinstein said. “Everything had to be on time.”
She’s the museum’s curator and designer of its exhibit Train Memorabilia from the LASM Collection, which runs through Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013.
The exhibit coincides with the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration by focusing on its historic location, the old Illinois Central Railroad Depot built for the Yazoo-Mississippi Valley Railroad Company.
“This part of the museum was added on, so though we’re inside, we’re actually standing outside the station’s exterior walls,” Weinstein said. “So, when this was a train station, we would have been standing on the platform.”
The exhibit is showing in the museum’s Colonnade Gallery, located in the hallway leading to the exit away from the main galleries.
This is where passengers would have loaded the train, the stragglers hopping on when the conductor made his final announcement before starting the train.
So, it’s only natural that glass cases filled with train memorabilia fill this gallery.
An exhibit label points out that the train station was built in a Neo-Classical style and sits upon the Mississippi River’s bank.
“During the heyday of train travel, the building served as the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad Company Station, a bustling center of comings and goings as travelers set out for or returned home from adventures,” the label continues. “Designed to withstand the trials of time and weather, this large masonry building with limestone decorative elements was constructed after two previous smaller structures suffered from fire. The grand columned edifice, built in 1925, welcomed all who used the rail system that ran from Louisville to Vicksburg to New Orleans.”
Soldiers returning from World War II and heads of state passed through the station. Even LSU’s first Mike the Tiger, who arrived as a bewildered cub in 1936, was shipped here by train.
Then, in 1946, the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad was absorbed by its parent company, and the depot was renamed the Illinois Central Railroad Passenger Station.
The station was retired in 1960, and the museum moved in a decade later.
Now, this is the point where you begin trying to put the station together, comparing the museum’s layout to that of the station’s. You already know you’re standing on the boarding platform.
You also know from looking at the building from the outside that it’s designed as a two-story main block flanked by one-story wings.
Back to the exhibit labels, the wings “originally contained waiting rooms and lounge facilities. These spaces flanked a central ticket office, adjacent to a small newsstand. The north wing contained a kitchen and dining rooms, and the south wing housed freight and Railway Express Agency offices. The second floor contained a large general office on the building’s south end and a series of smaller single offices lining each side of a central corridor on the north end.”
Now, here’s where the fun begins. Items in the glass cases lining the gallery were actually used in the station and on trains passing through.
Look closely at the menu included in the exhibition case filled with dinnerware from one of the trains dining cars. Meal prices begin at 50 cents. And if you were a big spender, there was always the King’s Dinner at $9.85.
Now, $9.85 doesn’t sound like much these days, but imagine how expensive it would be when the station was built in the 1920s.
But passengers weren’t the railroad’s only concert. Canvas mail bags hanging on the gallery’s wall were used in the train’s daily duty of mail transport.
“The United States Postal Service’s Railway Mail Service, begun in 1832, grew slowly until the Civil War and was officially inaugurated in 1869,” an exhibit label stated. “Railway Post Office clerks were required to sort 600 pieces of mail an hour under less than ideal conditions. An exhausting and dangerous job that included such hazards as train robberies, wrecks and fires, Railway Post Office clerks were considered the elite of the postal service’s employees.”
Mail bags were exchanged from a nonstop train, sometimes with less than a minute to complete the task.
“Engineers slowed the train to a crawl so the mailbags could be exchanged by hand, and they eventually erected simple steel hooks with cranes along the track to make the exchange easier,” the label stated.
“However, the two part process was not always successful. First the clerk snagged the mailbag with the catcher arm, timing it so as not to hit switch targets and telegraph poles. Then he tossed out the one for that station, attempting not to get it trapped beneath the wheels of the train or have it burst open.”
The exhibit also explores work on the railroad, emphasizing the dispatcher’s scheduling and monitoring of all train movements. The hand-crank phone he used in his work is part of the collection here, as well as office equipment used by train station staff.
At the end, there’s an original whistle from one of the trains. A conductor’s uniform is on display only a few feet away.
And you can almost see him now, pulling the string to that whistle, then yelling, “All aboard.”
Before the train pulls away.