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All aboard the celebration of Tucson’s railroad heritage

Chug, chug, chug, chug. Whoosh.

You can hear a rumbling beast in the distance. Children enjoying warm a Saturday afternoon run to catch a glimpse of it as it speeds by.

Screech. Choo Choo!

The train roars down the tracks, coming to a shrieking halt in front of sightseers and restaurant goers perched on rod-iron and wooden chairs under sun shades.

What unaware onlookers may not know is that this big machine was vital in the development of Tucson as a southwestern haven all those years ago.

The Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, 414 N Toole Ave., houses artifacts and tools of all shapes and sizes that educate visitors about the relevance of the train to Tucson’s development.

Just a few steps away from the museum is the last steam engine used in the Tucson sector, which was also featured in the 1955 movie musical “Oklahoma!” (Which was mostly filmed not in Oklahoma, but in southern Arizona.)

Every Saturday the museum presents an event called Locomotive Saturdays providing the chance to explore the locomotive with commentary from docents. They might even let you ring the golden bell that at one time was a way to alert those at the station that a train was close by.

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Without the railroad, Tucson was just a town in the middle of the vast Sonoran desert with the Presidio at its center.

Inside the museum, history comes alive with toy trains, TV screens playing historical videos and information buttons just waiting to be pressed to teach present generations a little something about the past.

The railroad made its grand entrance in Tucson on March 20, 1880, with the Southern Pacific Railroad, spewing smoke and unleashing a dust storm as only Western movies nowadays can depict, with pomp and circumstance and just a little bit of wistfulness.

The museum helps to bring these feelings to the forefront by using a room that once used to hold important railroad documents as its home, says Paul Horky, a docent. Today the artifacts represent the importance of the train in Tucson and act as a way for children to connect with items that time has passed by.

The entrance to the museum entices the observer to delve in deeper to see the black and white images of early life in the Tucson desert landscape.

As visitors progress further into the exhibit, photos and interactive displays demonstrate what the railroad brought the people of Tucson.

Honest, industrious and reliable workers who would do the heavy lifting of building and maintaining the railroad flooded into Tucson, says William Kalt, author, historian and Tucson native.

The railroad workers had different jobs to make sure the trains ran with little to no problems, whether it was fixing a broken track or making a replacement part to keep the train from falling behind schedule.

The train also ushered in another way to socialize, thanks to payday. After the workers were paid, people would get dressed up in their Sunday best, go pay their bills and wander around town, laughing and chatting with friends and neighbors, Kalt explains.

The museum holds evidence of hard work and remnants of railroad jobs. Small, metal lanterns hang from rod iron grates in the ceiling.   With each grouping of historical knowledge, the plaques show tidbits of historical detail in both English and Spanish.

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Several glass cases centered in the middle of the room hold fragile pieces of dishware and cutlery once utilized in the dining car on long train routes from the East to West Coast.

Aside from moving passengers, the train was also a way to transport things that were too heavy to be taken by other means of transport, says Jim Turner, a Tucson historian.

The locomotive went from wood burning, to coal, to diesel, indicating that passengers could take the trains and not be forced to wait while it was refueled, he adds.

These days the train — supplanted by the automobile and the airlines — is less important to the movement of people, though Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor routes are profitable. In the 2015 fiscal year, 30.8 million passengers rode the Northeast Corridor, a record. Amtrak also operates 15 long-distance train routes, which had 4.5 million passengers in fiscal 2015, off 1.2 percent from the previous year. Here’s the Amtrak data.

But today, freight trains, not passenger trains, dominate the nation’s rails.  According to the American Association of Railroads, freight trains accounted for 452,759 car-loads and intermodal units during the week ending Nov. 26. 

However, Amtrak’s long-distance trains, while unprofitable, still have appeal. Two long-distance trains have stops in both Tucson and Benson: The Sunset Limited, between New Orleans and Los Angeles, and the Texas Eagle, between Los Angeles and Chicago.

So the train still surges by on rails that extend far into local history, and the interest in that heritage persists.

“You can’t go forward without knowing your past,” Horky says.

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Alexis Wright / Arizona Sonora News

The locomotive engine featured in the musical “Oklahoma!” at the Southern Arizona Historical Society in Tucson. It was also the last steam engine used in the Tucson sector.