Extreme trains: Step back into the golden age of rail travel in Savannah’s downtown roundhouse

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trainSavannah is better known for its antebellum townhomes and moss-draped oaks than its role in the American Revolution or the golden age of railroading, but two relatively new attractions on the town’s western fringes aim to balance those perceptions.

The Georgia State Railroad Museum (601 W. Harris St., 912-651-6823) is a delight for train fans of all ages. It’s got a restored roundhouse featuring engines and coaches, and offers short locomotive rides that give visitors an overview of the old Central of Georgia, which in the early 1900s was Savannah’s largest employer. Rides on the open-air passenger car, which are narrated by a guide, begin with the car being slowly rotated on a giant turntable once used to direct railroad cars into the repair bays arranged around the semicircular roundhouse.

Right next door to the trainyard is Battlefield Park, featuring a recreated earthen fortification that commemorates the valiant but doomed attempt by colonial Americans, Haitians and others to wrest the city back from its British occupiers on Oct. 9, 1779.  The battle left some 800 troops killed or wounded — and Savannah in redcoat hands for the duration of the Revolutionary War.

The Coastal Heritage Society is the proprietor of both sites and markets them with the adjacent Savannah Visitors Center/History Museum, housed in a restored railroad passenger terminal. “The whole complex now has a formal name. We call it Tricentennial Park,” said Patricia Guerrero Knight, society spokesperson. (Savannah, founded in 1733, will celebrate its 300th year in 2033.)

Savannah’s railroad shops closed in 1963 after diesel locomotives supplanted the coal-fired steam engines that the local shops were built to handle. The Coastal Heritage Society took over management of the site in 1989, and CHS’s preservation teams have since restored more than 40 railroad cars and other pieces of equipment. Restoration work on other buildings is ongoing, and there are plans to establish a children’s museum on site.

Hot weather advisory: Much of the tour involves walking outside, so take advantage of all the shady spots in the roundhouse for frequent rest and water breaks. Luckily, the luxuries inside the two restored Pullman passenger cars — also a guided tour  — include air conditioning.

Meanwhile, the grass-covered earthen fort of the Battlefield Park was recreated with evidence of the real structure, known as the Spring Hill Redoubt, that Coastal Heritage archaeologists found nearby in 2005.  It’s easy to see how such redoubts helped British occupiers fend off attackers, who would have first had to cross a deep V-shaped ditch, studded with thick spear-pointed poles, before scaling the steep fort walls.

 

IF YOU GO
Georgia State Railroad Museum
601 W. Harris St., 912-651-6823
Admission: $10 for adults;
$4 for children 6 and under
Hours: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day)

Battlefield Park
Corner of Louisville Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 912-651-6825
Admission: Free to individual visitors; fee may apply for guided tours.
Hours: Open daily until dusk.
Directions from South Carolina: Cross into Savannah on the Talmadge Memorial Bridge; turn left on MLK Boulevard. The Railroad Museum and Battlefield Park are a short distance ahead on your right. The most convenient parking is at the parking lot of the Savannah Visitors Center/Savannah History Museum.
Information: chsgeorgia.org