We are very familiar with Bowling Green, Kentucky because back when we were teaching at Life on Wheels one of our regular venues was at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. It’s a friendly small city with a lot to see and do in the area, including cave tours and the always popular National Corvette Museum.
Another interesting attraction is the Historic Railpark Train Museum, located in the old Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad depot. If you have an interest in railroads or history, this is a stop you definitely need to include in your travel plans.
Bowling Green has long been an important part of transportation in central Kentucky. From the days when steam powered riverboats to the Golden Age of railroading, and today’s modern interstate highway system, untold numbers of travelers and tons of cargo have passed through the area. At one time more than 20 trains left Bowling Green headed south to Nashville, Tennessee and north to Louisville, Kentucky every day.
Today the Historic Railpark Train Museum preserves the history of those long-ago days with a fascinating museum housed in the two-story depot building and a wonderful collection of vintage railcars waiting to be explored just outside.
A self-guided tour of the museum includes interactive exhibits where one can learn a lot about the history and culture of railroading. Many people don’t know that time zones in the United States were introduced by railroads to standardize train schedules. Exhibits at the museum include everything from railroad tools and equipment to passenger steamer trunks that were once more popular than suitcases, old lanterns, and more. The depot also has a gift shop with a huge model train display.
Visitors of all ages will enjoy the Railpark, because there is something to see and do for everybody. Kids can dress up like hobos, run the model railroad in the gift shop, and watch movies in the depot’s theater.
The depot itself was built in 1925 to replace an earlier structure that was burned by Confederate troops when they left Bowling Green during the Civil War as the Union army advanced on the city. The L&N Railroad played an important but contentious role in the Civil War, carrying freight for both the North and the South. At war’s end, Milton Smith, the president of the railroad, expected the city to pay for construction of a new depot, and when they didn’t do it fast enough to suit him he threw a tantrum and moved the railroad’s headquarters to Paris, Tennessee. It wasn’t until after his death that the operation moved back to Bowling Green.
The present depot building’s two levels were segregated at one time, with a waiting room for white passengers on the upper level and African-Americans on the lower level.
Outside, this beautiful 796 E-8 locomotive, built by the Electro Motive Division of General Motors, is one of the most popular units on display at the Railpark.
Beginning back in 1832, mail was delivered to towns along the rail lines by way of Railway Post Office cars, commonly called “RPOs” and as many as five mail clerks would sort the mail as a train rolled down the tracks to its next destination. When the train arrived at a town the mail was ready to be picked up, and then on they went to the next town down the line. The RPO concept was very successful and continued until 1977. The Railpark’s RPO mail car is cramped and visitors can get an idea of how difficult it was to work inside it as it jostled on the tracks.
The Pullman company operated Pullman dining cars like this on the nation’s railways for generations. Many people don’t know that these were not owned or operated by the railroads themselves. Pullman company employees prepared delicious meals which were served by dining car staff in crisp, clean uniforms. Each Pullman dining car was named after somebody who is important in the food service industry.
The Railpark’s dining car is named after Duncan Hines, who was an early restaurant reviewer and critic long before they named cake mixes after him. He was born in Bowling Green and is buried there. We visited his grave once while we were teaching in town. At nights the seats in the Pullman cars were converted into beds for passengers who didn’t want to pay the extra money for private sleeping accommodations.
If you preferred more privacy you could get a berth that included two foldout beds and a toilet that could only be accessed by folding up the bottom bed. The Railpark’s sleeper car was purchased by the L&N in 1953, one of 22 new ones added to the rail line’s fleet that year.
Of course, the most luxurious way to travel was in your own private rail car, and back in the day, many high rollers did just that. The L&N Presidential car is the oldest surviving passenger car manufactured by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Built in 1911 and upgraded over the years, it was the private car of Milton Smith, the president of the railroad mentioned above, and included state-of-the-art comfort features such as an ice activated air conditioning system.
Who doesn’t love a caboose? I think railroad fans are probably divided about equally between which they like best, locomotives or cabooses. The caboose on display at the Railpark was built in 1978 and saw service with the B&O Railroad.
The Railpark has some other interesting cars that are in need of restoration, including a passenger car from the days of segregation and this hospital car that was built in 1945 and was one of just 100 Army hospital cars built to transport injured troops home from World War II.
The Historic Railpark Train Museum is located at 401 Kentucky Street in Bowling Green, convenient to Interstate 65. From May through October the Railpark is open Monday – Saturday from 9 AM to 6 PM, and Sundays 1 to 4 PM. November 1 through April 30 hours are Tuesday – Saturday from 10 AM to 4 PM, Sundays from 1 to 4 PM, and they are closed on Mondays. Guided rail car tours begin at 9:15 AM Monday – Saturday. The last guided tour of the day starts at 5:15 PM daily.
Admission is $12.75, seniors age 60 and older are $10.75, children ages 5-12 are $6.75, and kids age 4 and under are free. Admission includes the museum and guided tours of the rail cars on display.
Both levels of the museum are fully accessible to persons with disabilities. The vintage rail cars have limited accessibility due to steep steps and narrow hallways.
Unless you visit on a busy day, there is usually room to park a large RV, but you might want to call (270) 745-7317 in advance, just to be sure.
Congratulations Joyce Space, winner of our drawing for an RV camping journal donated by Barbara House. We had 96 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.
Thought For The Day – Lately I’ve noticed people my age are so much older than me.