DANVILLE — Last January, the Community Arts Center of Danville attracted 14,000 visitors to an exhibit about dinosaurs. This year, the center hopes to have another big draw with an exhibit about man-made behemoths: trains.
All Aboard! opened Wednesday and runs through Feb. 27. It looks at various aspects of railroads, from model trains and photography depicting locomotives to hobo culture and boxcar graffiti.
The subject is a natural one for Danville because its history, like that of the country, is tied to railroads. In the early 1940s, the Danville freight yards handled 3,000 rail cars a day. Danville was a station for the Southern Railway system (now Norfolk Southern) as train crews traveled to Tennessee and back, and the city was also a junction point for the Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railway. And Junction City in southern Boyle County is so named because Louisville & Nashville Railroad traveled east-west across the north-south connection of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad (another predecessor to Norfolk Southern).
"Danville and Junction City were once booming train towns, and there's a lot of family history in the area with it," said Jenny Jacoby, marketing director for the Community Arts Center.
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"Trains were a pretty natural choice because kids and adults alike, especially in this area that has a rich railroad history, are interested in that," said Brandon Long, program director for the center.
Of particular interest to visitors will be a model train exhibit in the center's Grand Hall that is on loan from Jerry Chose of Richmond. Chose, a retired Boeing designer, said he fell in love with trains as a boy growing up in a small North Dakota town.
"The train came through going west in the morning and east in the afternoon, and it was the high point of the day," Chose said. "Every kid in town was going to be an engineer."
Chose hopes the exhibit will bring more young people into model railroading, "but I think the hobby is one that has mostly guys like me with gray hair. It doesn't have a keyboard and a screen. ... I think the steam locomotive was far more exciting than the modern diesel because, if you've ever been around one, when it's up and steaming, it's making all these clanks and it's almost like it's breathing. It's got more appeal than a diesel does."
Volunteer "engineers" will run the model trains at regular intervals for visitors.
The exhibit, whose primary sponsor is Danville Pediatrics and Primary Care, also features two train-related photo displays. One shows the work of O. Winston Link, who photographed steam engines, particularly as they chugged through the night. Link created his own lighting equipment to capture trains as they moved at 60 mph through the dark landscape.
The other photo exhibit shows the contemporary work of Eric Curry, who superimposes images of people against model trains. "It's hard to tell if it's a real train or a model train layout," Jacoby said.
Retired Southern Railway conductor Chauncey Love of Danville will be at the center when he can to tell of his days working on the railroad. Except for a few years in the Navy during World War II, Love worked as a switchman and a conductor from 1939 to 1986.
Actors portraying hobos discuss what it was like to hop onto trains and ride the rails, and how hobos relayed information to one another through codes and marks left on landmarks. There is also information on Operation Lifesaver, Norfolk Southern's program to prevent crossing accidents.
A small upstairs gallery tells the stories of two railroad legends: John Henry and Casey Jones. Paintings illustrate their stories, and variations of the different folk songs about the men play in the background.
While last year's dinosaur exhibit was primarily one that involved observing, organizers of All Aboard! wanted this exhibit to be more hands-on, so there are several different activities that encourage children to participate.
For example, there's a train simulation computer program hooked to a television monitor that can give children 8 and older the experience of what it's like to drive a locomotive.
For smaller children, a large set of wooden trains is on the floor of an upstairs gallery. A mock firebox and coal tinder will encourage kids to shovel coal into a glowing firebox. In the basement, they can use tempura paints to apply their own graffiti to a mock boxcar.
The center's staff has assembled everyday household objects to replicate the sounds of trains, from the "clickety-clack" across the tracks to the rumble of the cars.
Doug Little, president of Little Oil Co., a co-sponsor of the exhibit, said his grandchildren are one reason he was interested in helping put on All Aboard!
"They are 5 and 4, and when they were 2, they could name every Thomas the Tank Engine character. They couldn't read, but they could look at each and decide if it was a steam locomotive or a diesel locomotive," he said. "So I really got back into trains through my grandkids, and I'm sure when they come to visit the exhibit, they are going to go bananas."