Museum celebrates 50 years with train memorabilia exhibit
From the time the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad Co. Station opened in 1925 until it was retired in 1960, the depot, later the Illinois Central Railroad Passenger Station, was a center of comings and goings for Baton Rouge and the surrounding area.
The Louisiana Art & Science Museum will look back to the glory days of the railroad depot, its home since 1971, at an exhibit on train memorabilia from the museum’s collection. The exhibit is part of this year’s celebration of the LASM’s 50th anniversary.
“I remember what an exciting experience it was to see the train coming in,” said Janet Quinn Rhorer, one of a group of lifelong Baton Rougeans invited to the museum to reminisce about train travel and the old depot.
She recalls a trip she made from the depot in the fall of 1937, when she was in the eighth-grade at Baton Rouge Junior High School. Her school was playing Woodville, Miss., in football, and students took the train to the game.
“Baton Rouge Junior High was soundly defeated something like 45 to nothing,” said Rhorer, who still can’t believe that the school’s strict principal, Sadie Baskin, permitted the trip.
“My parents were married at St. Joseph Cathedral in June 1924 very early in the morning so they could take the train to Memphis for their honeymoon,” said Winifred Evans Byrd. “The time of the wedding depended on the time of the train.”
Mary Frey Eaton remembers in the late 1930s waving goodbye to her parents, who were traveling by train to see LSU play Tennessee in football. “I can remember being here and seeing Mama waving out of the window,” Eaton said.
They all recalled the famous trip that Gov. Huey Long organized in October 1934, when he took almost the whole LSU student body in six trains of 14 cars each to see LSU play Vanderbilt. “He paid the way and even gave them spending money,” Rhorer recalled.
So much of Baton Rouge history in the first half of the 20th century happened at the fine old building along River Road between North Boulevard and America Street.
During World War II, soldiers said their farewells there to family members and friends as they departed to points unknown. For Dr. Millard Byrd, it was the place he returned to Baton Rouge in late May or early June of 1946.
“The boys returning all came at different times,” Winifred Byrd said. “Millard had been gone almost two years in China and Burma.”
Millard Byrd’s father had found a schedule that said when his son would be returning and had the whole family at the depot to meet him. “Millard was very upset when he saw us,” Winifred Byrd said. “He had planned his homecoming to surprise everybody.”
The State-Times for Jan. 8, 1925, described every detail of the “handsome new passenger depot” in a story announcing that the building was nearing completion and would be open the following month.
The new depot “pays tribute to the ever-growing city of Baton Rouge and testifies to the fast increasing number of improvements that are taking place,” the article said.
The station contained two identical waiting rooms, segregated by race. “(They) are exactly the same in size and finish and are situated in the central part of the building,” the State-Times reported. “In each are tile floors with an art marble wainscoting seven feet high. At the extreme ends are women’s rest rooms and men’s smoking rooms. The waiting rooms will be furnished with rows of oak-stained and finished benches, rocking chairs and tables.”
The late Ernest Gueymard, former managing editor of the State-Times, in a column dated July 30, 1979, described a train called the Bumblebee, a Yazoo & Mississippi Valley passenger train that traveled daily from Baton Rouge to Vicksburg and back, “servicing practically every little village and town between the two cities — in fact, making 22 regular stops and two flag stops,” he wrote. The train operated until the early 1930s, when it was discontinued.
Gueymard, known for his humorous anecdotes of life in Baton Rouge, described how the Bumblebee was “a boon also to bridal couples trying to get away on a honeymoon.”
He interviewed Martyn Young, then 93, who told how he had traveled with his new bride to Baton Rouge for a honeymoon at the Istrouma Hotel. On the second day of their trip, Young’s mother knocked at the door of the hotel room at 5:30 a.m. “to pay a visit” on the new couple. Young told Gueymard that “he didn’t know whether to jump out of the window or hide under the bed.”
According to Gueymard, the flag stops were in North Baton Rouge and McManus in East Feliciana Parish. The regular stops in Louisiana were Zachary, Slaughter, Ethel, Wilson and Norwood and in Mississippi at Centreville, Gloster, Natchez and Port Gibson.
“People who lived downtown or in South Baton Rouge would often take the train to and from work at Standard Oil in North Baton Rouge,” said Ann Greer McMains, who remembers that the depot had a distinctive smell “the minute you opened the door.”
“It was from all the steam and smoke,” she said.
One of the most important passengers to arrive at the depot was the first Mike the Tiger, who came in the fall of 1936. His arrival led to a strike by students who blocked the entrances to the campus so the professors could not get to their classes on the morning that an official welcoming committee met the famous cub at the train station.
According to the 1937 Gumbo, “the band thundered beneath dormitory windows, and hosts of coeds were added to the unofficial welcoming committee, all determined to show Mike that southern hospitality so completely LSU’s own.”
Shortly thereafter, LSU President James Monroe Smith appeared and called off classes for the remainder of the day, which ended with bonfires and dances.
In 1946, the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad was absorbed by the Illinois Central Railroad and the old depot was renamed the Illinois Central Railroad Passenger Station. However, railroad travel was never the same.
As the airline industry grew, rail travel decreased rapidly. In 1960, the Illinois Central closed the old depot.
The Louisiana Art & Science Museum, originally the Baton Rouge Arts and Science Center and later the Louisiana Arts & Science Center, was incorporated in 1962 as an outgrowth of the Junior Museum, a program of the Junior League of Baton Rouge. Some 250 supporters each donated $500 to acquire the Old Governor’s Mansion for the museum.
In 1963, an act of the Louisiana Legislature set aside the mansion for “the purpose of establishing and maintaining an arts and science center for the education and inspiration of present and future generations and as a cultural and scientific resource of this state.”
LASC opened in the Old Governor’s Mansion in 1964 and added a planetarium in 1967. However, the museum quickly ran out of space.
In 1971, through the efforts of attorney H. Payne Breazeale, the old passenger station was leased to the city of Baton Rouge with the provision that it be used only for the Louisiana Arts & Science Center. It was first used as an annex to the Old Governor’s Mansion. In 1974, the depot closed for renovation and additions as part of Baton Rouge’s construction of the new Civic Center Complex. The building was renovated with a $2.5 million federal urban renewal grant administered by the City-Parish.
In 1988, the City-Parish purchased the facility from the Illinois Central Railroad and leased it to the museum. “The lease was prepaid for 99 years,” said Carol Gikas, who has served as president and executive director since 1980, when Adalié Brent, the first executive director retired.
In recent years, the museum has done major renovations to the old depot. It has added galleries, opened a state of the art planetarium and space gallery, presented nationally recognized exhibits and continued to maintain its status as one of Louisiana’s most forward-looking museums. In celebration of a half century, the railroad exhibit looks back at LASM’s historic location.