Learn All About Trains and Tucson at So. AZ Transportation Museum
By Teya Vitu
March 20 is a special day for Tucson rail fans and scholars of modern Tucson.
Rail history was born in Tucson on March 20, 1880, with the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad. That same day marks the birth of modern Tucson as we know it today, entirely due to the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Every year on March 20 brings the biggest festivities for the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, 414 N. Toole Ave., which opened in 2005 on, you guessed it, March 20. That happened to be the 125th anniversary of the railroad’s arrival.
The Transportation Museum is the building closest to Toole Avenue at the north end of the Historic Depot. Drivers into Downtown have been driving by it ever since Congress Street was shut down for streetcar constructions.
The museum is best known for its Locomotive No. 1673 outdoor exhibit. It was built in 1900 by Schenectady Locomotive Works and tallied more than 1 million miles as a short-run carrier.
Southern Pacific donated 1673 to the City of Tucson on March 20, 1955, the 75th anniversary year of the railroad’s arrival in Tucson, and that same year it appeared in the movie musical, “Oklahoma.” The locomotive was then put out to pasture at Himmel Park, where it was a favorite attraction from 1962 to 2000.
The locomotive was moved to the Historic Depot in December 2000 and predates the museum or even talk of a museum, which followed in 2001, or even the restoration of the depot itself, which was completed in 2004.
Downtown revitalization instigator, Fletcher McCusker, checked out the museum as a visitor on March 8, 2011, at 1:30 p.m., as museum chairman Ken Karrels remembers it with a rail fan’s timetable precision. McCusker walked around 1673 but there was no way to get into the locomotive’s cab.
“Ken, you have to get a platform,” McCusker told Karrels right then.
Yeah, right, thought Karrels, knowing full well building a platform and steps in no way fit into the museum’s budget. As McCusker has done countless times Downtown in the past couple years, he stepped forward and, this time, said he’d make a platform happen.
“Could you get it done by March 20?” asked Karrels, always cognizant of that magical March 20 date and that year’s annual Silver Spike Festival.
“24 hours later, I get a call from Ron Schwabe,” Karrels recalled. “I met with him at high noon. Within hours, he gets a crew started. By March 19, it was put together.”
The gates to the locomotive are open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, and visitors can climb up into the cab and ring the bell.
The Southern Arizona Transportation Museum is not some thrown-together relic of a museum. The displays are professional quality. They tell the story of the railroad in Tucson, mostly, but also touch on Tucson’s earlier experience with a streetcar – horse drawn at first and electrified from 1906 to 1930.
“Turn of the century and all of a sudden there was public transportation,” said Karrels.
The railroad may define the birth of modern Tucson, but just the idea of a railroad is responsible for Tucson being in the United States. Tucson became part of the country in 1854 as part of the Gadsden Purchase, a slice of today’s southern stretches of Arizona and New Mexico that was acquired as a future railroad route.
In March 1880, railroad construction had proceeded from Los Angeles to Yuma and the end of the line that month was Tucson. Three years later, rail stretched eastward to New Orleans.
“It became a milestone,” Karrels said. “It changed the city forever. It became the Sunset Route. It was port to port from Los Angeles to New Orleans.”
At that time, Tucson was on one of only four cross-country rail routes – and there was no other practical way to cross the country.
The railroad transformed Tucson from an adobe town to one where Eastern niceties were suddenly easily available. The El Presidio Neighborhood and its Victorian architecture contrasting with Barrio Nuevo’s adobe strikingly plays into this shift into the railroad era.
The railroad spurred all five of what would become Arizona’s and Tucson’s economic 5 C’s – copper, cattle, citrus, cotton and climate.
“In the early 20th century, the copper industry was vital to the Arizona economy,” Karrels said. “The railroad lead to the growth of copper and caused the expansion of cotton and cattle.”
No, the railroad didn’t do anything for the climate, but the railroad imported people for the climate, first for health reasons.
“All of a sudden, tourism became a prime attraction,” Karrels said.
The train was Tucson’s lifeline from 1880 until the mid-20th century. Air travel and freeways relegated the railroad to an afterthought in Tucson, though drivers on 6th Street know full well that trains are still a very active player.
But rail fans are optimists and one museum panel is title “From Decline to a New High.” Amtrak restored passenger train travel in the 1970s (and just this May gave Tucson civilized departure times of 8:15 a.m. and 7:35 p.m.), Tucson’s streetcar is now under construction, and talk continues of some day having passenger train service from Tucson to Phoenix.
“Now we’re getting back with light rails,” Karrels said about all the light rail service and streetcars popping up all over the place every year.
Former Mayor Bob Walkup in about 2001 was chatting with Karrels and other train enthusiasts and with his ever-sunshine optimism said “let’s do something” about creating a train museum around the locomotive that had just come to the depot.
A committee was formed with Karrels on board. The city owns the Depot and the detached former Southern Pacific records building, which the committee saw as ideal for a museum venue.
“What we’re about is the art, artifacts, architecture and promoting the history of rail transportation in southern Arizona,” Karrels said.
The museum has a model of the depot as it appeared in 1920 with its original Spanish Colonial architecture that remained in place from 1907 to 1940. A 1940s modern redesign remained in place until the historic restoration in 2004.
Karrels has been involved since the mid-1990s when another committee worked to move the locomotive from Himmel Park to the Historic Depot.
“For me, I grew up in Chicago,” Karrels said. “My first words were choo-choo. My grandfather worked on the Illinois Central.”
As a young child, he went to the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948-49, the last major railroad fair. Then you have to fast-forward nearly 50 years for the rail thread to continue in Karrels’ life.
“It was there, but it was dormant,” Karrels said.
Karrels had moved to Tucson from Elgin, Ill., in 1977. In 1988, he and his wife, Mary, started the Karrels Double K Ranch bed and breakfast.
“Then I said, ‘let’s put in a garden railroad,’” Karrels said. The garden-scale train was installed in 1995. “In 2000, we purchased a caboose. You can stay in the caboose.”
And for the past decade, Karrels has been joined at the hip to the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, where you will find him often enough.
“I’m here every Saturday, sometimes on Tuesday and Thursday,” he said.
The museum is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. It is closed on Monday. Admission is free.