DALLAS — Packing up decades of history is never easy.
But that's just what the Museum of the American Railroad aims to do as it relocates from Fair Park to Frisco in the coming weeks.
Of course, having more than 4,500 tons of history in the form of locomotives and passenger trains doesn't help. They will travel a 55-mile route on tracks built for modern trains. Some haven't rolled on the rails in decades.
"We knew under the best-case scenario it would be a difficult project," said Bob LaPrelle, the museum's longtime executive director. "It's been anything but best case. But we're stubborn."
Portions of the collection, including the museum's two historic buildings, have already arrived in Frisco.
But the unprecedented move of such a wide array of trains has piqued the interest of railroad buffs around the globe. The one-of-a-kind collection spans the golden era of railroads from 1900 to 1970. Its roster of rolling stock comes from the West Coast, the East Coast and places in between. Each of the 40 pieces carries with it a bit of history.
Its most prized piece: a Union Pacific Big Boy, the largest steam locomotive ever built.
The museum's marathon move has been more than four years in the making.
First, there were funds to raise and designs to draft. Then came a 12-acre site to grade, more than a half-mile of tracks to lay and 2,600 tons of crushed granite to tamp in Frisco. And all the while there were locomotives to repair and passenger cars to prep. Not to mention the mounds of paperwork.
The to-do list for the nonprofit's three paid employees has been endless. They rely on an executive board and a cadre of volunteers who donate their time and expertise. Plus, they have the support and respect of the railroad companies, who are only too happy for an outlet that preserves their legacy.
But anyone who's ever moved knows that the unexpected can put a wrench in the best of plans.
The economic downturn put an immediate damper on fundraising to pay the $2.3 million moving bill. Mother Nature had her say, with rain that delayed track work in Frisco multiple times.
And then there was the city of Dallas, which filed a lawsuit in 2010 alleging trespass to force the museum off city property more quickly. The legal maneuver, which was eventually settled out of court, simply diverted resources from what had already become a complex move.
The museum's collection ranges from the luxurious passenger cars and powerful steam locomotives of the early 20th century to an extensive Santa Fe collection and the more modern diesel locomotives.
There's the steam locomotive originally made for the Imperial Russian Railways, the electric locomotive that pulled the funeral train for presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and the "Centennial," the largest diesel locomotive ever built.
The 10 Pullman passenger cars, meanwhile, offer a glimpse at the early days when train travel was an event and the accommodations were plush.
Richard Wainscott learned the ins and outs of the collection as the museum's longest-serving volunteer. Since 1976, Wainscott has renovated, restored and repaired various aspects of the collection.
His favorite passenger car? The Pullman "San Bartolo," which is a combined sleeper, lounge and barber shop.
One of the museum's more recent acquisitions is an ALCO PA-1 diesel-electric locomotive. It's one of only four in the world and the only Santa Fe version still in existence.
Wrecked in Mexico in 1981, the locomotive is in sad shape with "a face only a mother could love," said museum board trustee Clint Tennill Jr. Hopes are to eventually restore the engine to its former glory.
The museum traces its beginnings to the mutual interests of Dallas philanthropist Everette DeGolyer Jr. and Joseph Rucker Jr., who in the 1960s was the assistant general manager of the State Fair. They set up an exhibit at the 1963 State Fair of Texas that became a hit among fairgoers.
The State Fair made the train exhibit an annual staple and acquired several significant pieces that are still among the most prized in the museum's collection.
"Timing was everything," LaPrelle, the museum's executive director, said. "Some of these pieces were literally pulled from the scrap line. The Big Boy was one of them."
As the years passed, the museum honed its roles of education and preservation. But its 1.8-acre site at Fair Park was limiting. Several pieces went straight to storage because there was no more room.
In 2006, the museum adopted its current moniker and hired a consultant to produce a strategic plan. Those visions called for a bigger site, bigger displays and a bigger presence.
The hunt was on for a new home.
That's when Frisco officials came knocking with a dream of their own. The Collin County suburb began in 1902 as a water stop on the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, nicknamed the "Frisco." The city already had a soon-to-open Heritage Museum that paid homage to its railroad roots.
But Frisco leaders saw potential in the caliber of museum housed at Fair Park.
After a series of negotiations, the museum reached an agreement with Frisco in 2008. The city would donate 12.4 acres along the railroad tracks in the city's center and contribute $1 million of what was estimated to be a $1.5 million project.
The move was tentatively set for the following year.
But at the time, no one quite grasped the immensity of moving 14 locomotives, 17 passenger cars and nine freight cars. It's not like everything could just be packed in a box for the trek north. They needed to go by rail. And that meant they had to meet the standards of the Federal Railroad Administration as well as the railroad companies handling the move.
And that called for a lot of work. Some of the pieces were railworthy, having traveled regularly from Fair Park for events. Others needed an extensive overhaul. Some will even be transported on flat rail cars or trucked north because they're too fragile.
At Fair Park, a dedicated group of volunteers has been doing everything to ensure a successful move. On a recent hot summer afternoon, Dick Thompson cranked a gear, sending oil oozing through the Big Boy locomotive. Nearby, volunteer Bruce Parent rubbed down the crossheads, looking for any remnants of rust or dirt that could cause problems.
Their efforts have been concentrated on the Big Boy and the Frisco No. 4501. These two steam locomotives will travel separately in what are called "hospital moves." Speeds will be no more than 10 mph.
The museum contracted with steam locomotive expert Scott Lindsay to make them safe for travel.
It's too costly to fully restore them — though Lindsay said it could be done. Instead, the locomotives will be pulled by one of Burlington Northern Santa Fe's C-44 diesel locomotives. Other cars will be added to boost braking capacity.
"The museum equipment will pose no problem for our modern motive power," said Joseph Faust, a spokesman for the railroad.
These two steam locomotives are among the most anticipated pieces to hit the rails in the coming weeks. The Big Boy, for example, hasn't moved from Fair Park since 1964.
In late July, Frisco's mayor drove the last spike into the museum's new tracks. Shortly after that came final approvals from federal regulators.
Timing now rests with the railroads, who own the tracks that the trains must travel. They are also donating crews and equipment for all the moves.
For museum leaders, that has meant a lot of waiting. First there was the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train blocking tracks in Dallas. Then several false starts as regular trains were too full to add some of the museum's more railworthy cars. Plus, rain caused some delays with pieces stored on a little-used industrial track.
The call from the yard master finally came last week. LaPrelle, Wainscott and Kellie Murphy, the museum's chief operating officer, headed to Irving, where the first cars to be moved were being stored. There was a safety meeting.
Then the three headed to their vehicles to follow the train as best they could by road. They were serving as the move's mechanical crew. They came prepared with jacks, hand tools and a can of oil just in case.
After more than an hour, at rail speeds of less than 20 mph, the museum's first cars arrived in Frisco. With several short whistle blasts, the railroad crew signaled its arrival.
A small crowd gathered to greet them. LaPrelle grinned like a proud parent. Wainscott nodded his satisfaction.
"We worked many years for this," Wainscott said. "Most people won't realize what's been involved up to this point."
And it sets the stage for the multiple moves still to come. Said LaPrelle: "I'll be glad when about 36 more pieces get here."
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com