Bluegrass Railroad Museum celebrates 40 years
The Bluegrass Railroad Museum will offer steam engine passenger train excursions to the Kentucky River during the next two weekends as the nonprofit organization celebrates 40 years of preserving and sharing railroad history. Built in 1931, the coal-burning steam engine coming to the Versailles museum was restored by Gramling Locomotive Works and now travels across the eastern United States, allowing its passengers to experience "the sights, sounds and smell of a coal-fired locomotive." Besides offering this once-in-a-lifetime experience to passengers, Bluegrass Railroad Museum volunteers will help operate the authentic steam engine known as "Sadie," said John Penfield, Bluegrass Railroad Museum's executive director. Penfield said "Sadie," a Lehigh Valley coal-fired steam engine, will offer a very different experience for anyone who was a passenger on the train powered by an 1860s-era replica steam engine known as the Lincoln funeral train last Labor Day weekend. Also, a photographic drive-by will give passengers an opportunity to videotape and photograph "Sadie" crossing the trestle at Trackside Farm. Trips lasting about 90-minutes are scheduled on two weekends: Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 20 and 21, and Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 27 and 28, at 2 and 5 p.m. each day. First class tickets (air conditioned coaches) are $29 for adults and $25 for children, with tickets for the open-air coaches priced at $24 for adults and $20 for children for the Steam Train Weekends - a special event at the Bluegrass Railroad Museum. "This is a jewel," said Penfield of the passenger train rides offered by the museum in Versailles. "There are only three places in Kentucky where you can ride a train. "Woodford County has a jewel here." The story of passenger train excursions coming to Versailles began in 1976 when Jack Riley, of Midway, and seven other railroad enthusiasts organized and incorporated the Bluegrass Railroad Museum as a nonprofit organization. For a decade, these railroad visionaries collected and stored various pieces of train-related equipment at abandoned sidings - tracks off the main railroad line - in Lexington. "They had no place to run the trains. That's why it was incorporated as a museum," explained Penfield. "They had no operating locomotives" until "they finally moved down to the military base (Bluegrass Army Depot, where) they received donations of a couple of locomotives, but again it was a vagabond group who . tried to preserve the few pieces of equipment that they did own." Finally in 1987, the Bluegrass Railroad Museum found a permanent home in Versailles - on tracks formerly owned and operated by the Southern Railroad, which no longer had customers on this stretch of rail to the Kentucky River. The railroad tracks from the crossing at Beasley Road (in the Woodford County Park on Tyrone Pike) to the Kentucky River were purchased by the Bluegrass Railroad Museum for $15,000. "The good news is no one can tell us we can't run the trains on it," said Penfield. "A lot of museums can no longer run their trains because they're dependent upon major railroads to permit them (to use their rails). We don't have that problem. The problem we do have is that we have to maintain the track. And everything on the railroad is expensive and heavy." The Bluegrass Railroad Museum has come a long way since its first passenger train excursion in May 1988. Since that inaugural trip, the nonprofit organization has relied on its dedicated volunteers to run passenger trains, powered by various locomotives over the years. Seeing the smiles on children's and their parents' faces while riding the Bluegrass Railroad Museum's Santa Train compelled Penfield to start volunteering. He wanted to help preserve these unforgettable experiences for future generations of families. More than 10,700 passengers rode the Bluegrass Railroad Museum's rails last year alone - far outpacing the 1,800 passengers who rode its rails 12 years ago when Penfield started volunteering. The income generated by ticket sales during his first year as a volunteer did not cover basic operating expenses such as fuel, he said. The Lincoln funeral train alone drew the interest of about 800 passengers last Labor Day weekend, but more importantly word has spread through various media outlets and the museum's website. So tour groups from Cincinnati and elsewhere are also bringing in more passengers, Penfield said. "We get visitors from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida," he said. "We've had people come from the West Coast this year, from California and Oregon. We have international visitors." Being able to extend train rides to the Kentucky River several years ago was another significant factor in raising passenger numbers, Penfield said. He said people who remembered traveling to the river while aboard a Bluegrass Railroad Museum passenger train in past years have returned with their families. Being able to travel to the Kentucky River and get off the train allows passengers to appreciate a scenic overlook - 285 feet above the river. "You can see Wild Turkey Distillery across the river and the Tyrone quarry," said Penfield. "You feel now like you've gone someplace - gotten off the train, gotten back on the train and returned" to the train station, he said. Tour groups - particularly school groups - will frequently gather in front of the locomotive for a photo, Penfield said. Additionally, two first class air-conditioned passenger cars have attracted people who might not have otherwise taken the Bluegrass Railroad Museum's train ride to the Kentucky River on hot and humid summer days. "On a recent weekend, probably two-thirds of the passengers were in first class," Penfield said. Tickets for those seats are more expensive because of the fuel cost to operate generators for the air conditioning in those coaches, he said. One operated as a passenger coach from Chicago to the West Coast, while the other, built in 1939, traveled from New York and Miami. "And for anybody who's watched 'The Sopranos' on television," added Penfield, "the gangsters - when the situation got too hot in New York - would go to Miami. That's how they got there . aboard trains just like that one. In fact, probably that one" was used by gangsters who made those trips to Miami. Every Bluegrass Railroad Museum passenger car has a history. Two operated as commuter coaches between New Jersey to New York City. Two other coaches traveled in and out of Philadelphia and New York, Penfield said. Traveling through Milner gives Bluegrass Railroad Museum conductors an opportunity to delve into the long, rich history of passenger rail history in this country. For example, when the museum's railroad line was built in 1889, "people living in Milner had two ways to get to Lexington - either on the train or with a horse," said Penfield, a lifelong model train enthusiast. "People don't realize that a scant 150 years ago, there were no paved roads, there were no cars, trucks, buses. You either went by horseback or horse and buggy or you rode the train, which is one of the reasons why the trains were instrumental in opening up the United States because (passenger train service) was the way to travel." Throughout its history, the Bluegrass Railroad Museum and its weekend passenger train excursions have been opening the eyes of young and old alike to the rich history of railroads in this country. Indoor and outdoor museum exhibits also offer educational opportunities to learn about the history of rail service. A November 2006 fire gutted the building that had housed the Bluegrass Railroad Museum's gift shop, indoor displays and offices. A more functional station, with additional space for railroad history displays, was built in 2007. For more information about the Bluegrass Railroad Museum, its regular passenger train rides and upcoming special events, including the coal-fired Steam Train Weekends and Civil War Train on Saturday, Sept. 3, and Sunday, Sept. 4, visit bluegrassrailroad.com. Tickets may be purchased in advance online.