Uncommonwealth: Segregation-era rail car being restored in Kentucky for Smithsonian

ctruman@herald-leader.comNovember 10, 2013 


    Live videostream: Watch construction of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture as it happens: Nmaahc.si.edu/building/camera.

— In the corner of a chilly McCreary County railway shop sits a piece of American history that millions from around the world will tour: a restored Southern Railways "Jim Crow" car with separate sections for black and white passengers.

The 80-foot car includes separate restrooms for its segregated passengers; 22 of each race could ride, although white passengers got a tad more legroom between seats. The restrooms for blacks were hardly big enough to turn around in, while the restrooms for whites included lounges with sofas and, in the men's room, for cigar-smoking and spittoons.

The car probably was used from 1940 to 1960. Southern Railways operated in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

"It depicts the realities of how segregation was," John Rimmasch, head of Wasatch Railroad Contractors, said while striding through the car, now painted sylvan green on the outside.

The restoration is called an "in-service" restoration by Wyoming-based Wasatch, which is just completing its work in a warehouse maintenance shop often used by Big South Fork Scenic Railway.

The Smithsonian launched an exhaustive search for such a car in 2010, and Knoxville-based railroad executive Pete Claussen, described as "a longtime friend of the Smithsonian," donated "Car 1200." The railcar was in rough shape before Rimmasch's company began work on it. Wasatch Railroad Contractors works on rail cars close to where they find then, Rimmasch said. He started in the business when he restored his first train, his father's miniature steam locomotive. He now works on projects around the country.

The goal is not to return the car to showroom-new condition, but to return it to how it would have looked for daily service — leaving a few scratches and dings that would have come with routes such as the one between Somerset and Chattanooga — but with a few modern updates.

For example, asbestos floor tiles have been replaced by non-asbestos flooring, the new paint does not contain lead, and the seat fabric's horsehair backing will be replaced by cotton and polyester.

The restoration has taken 18 months and will cost $789,000, according to Smithsonian estimates. After the car has been shrink-wrapped and driven by truck to Washington, it will be lowered by two 500-ton cranes into its permanent site in the bottom level of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, being built by the Smithsonian.

The railway car weighs 160,000 pounds, so moving it and installing it near the Washington Monument is going to require careful staging.

There's irony in the train car going by truck. Although restored, the railway car, which once sped along at speeds as high as 80 mph, is no longer rail-worthy.

One other element will have to be sorted out by Smithsonian researchers. Rimmasch said the car is a "Jim Crow" segregated car, but the location and wording of the signs explaining that has not been finalized.

Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, said in a brochure about the restoration that the car "will be a centerpiece, one of the most recognized in the new museum. Our goal for the car is fundamentally education: a firsthand appreciation by all Americans of the experiences of segregation in our collective history — everyday experiences that motivated peaceful protest and change, ultimately remaking our practices of freedom and democracy for every citizen of the United States."

Spencer Crew, curator of Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876 — 1968, the exhibition that will be on display when the museum opens, said, "The train car is a powerful representation of the challenges segregation presented to African-Americans over the years as they sought to travel by rail, boat, bus or even airplane."

The new Smithsonian museum is scheduled to open in 2015. Restoration craftsmen have made an extra effort to make the car as it would have looked to passengers of the era. The 18-month restoration process in Stearns has employed about 20 craftsmen, from metal workers to roofers to electricians.

"They know where it's going, what it's going to be, and they're going the extra mile," Rimmasch said.


Live videostream: Watch construction of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture as it happens: NMAAHC.si.edu/building/camera.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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