The Great Locomotive Chase, the Southern Museum points out, actually began on foot.
Western & Atlantic Railroad conductor William A. Fuller was shocked to see a group of men commandeer “The General” while passengers and crew were enjoying breakfast at the Lacy Hotel in Big Shanty, Ga., on April 12, 1862.
Fuller and a couple others ran north after his train. He didn’t yet know it had been taken by James Andrews and a group of nearly two dozen Union commandos. Andrews was on a doomed mission to destroy track and disrupt communications.
The conductor ran across a handcar and three trains and 86 miles later he -- along with Confederate horsemen who had been reached by telegraph -- had chased Andrews to Ringgold, a few miles south of Chattanooga, Tenn. Out of fuel and water for the locomotive, Andrews and his party fled, only to be captured.
Eight, including its leader, were later hanged in Atlanta for espionage and conspiracy. Fuller became a Georgia hero.
Today, Big Shanty is known as Kennesaw, a Cobb County suburb about 25 miles northwest of Atlanta. The city lies near Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield and is home to fast-growing Kennesaw State University, whose dorms rise along nearby Interstate 75.
I spent a few hours Thursday at the museum and in downtown Kennesaw, which hosts the Big Shanty Festival this weekend.
I was impressed by the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, a well-landscaped brick building which rises alongside the busy tracks used by up to 70 CSX trains a day.
The front portion gives an insightful history of the crucial role played by railroads during the Civil War. The exhibits include weapons, photos and uniforms and civilian clothing.
Like almost every aspect of the war, the North had more materiel than the South. In 1860, its rail production was 234,000 tons vs. 26,000 tons. And the Union had an amazing military railroad system. Both sides leveraged tracks to move thousands of troops into Chickamauga, Ga., and Chattanooga.
Another fascinating feature of the Southern Museum is a display on Pullman Porters and a large re-creation of Glover Machine Works, which produced 200 small but versatile locomotives between 1902 and 1930 in nearby Marietta. The family-owned company continued to make pipe and other parts into the 1950s.
The museum acquired Glover tools, parts patterns, locomotives and more when the complex was cleaned out and leveled in the mid-1990s. This part of the museum is a must for railroad buffs because it shows a side of railroading you rarely see.
The facility also has a hands-on Education Center for kids.
A large theater presents a fine 25-minute drama on the Great Locomotive Chase. Outside are photos of the Andrews raiders and several of the key Georgians who went after them. The presentation includes a description of the Medals of Honor the raiders received. One medal on display was posthumously awarded to hanged raider Sgt. John Scott.
After that tribute, you walk in to the room with the “The General,” the museum’s star attraction. Remarkably, the train was reconditioned after the war and made several tours, including during the Civil War centennial in the 1960s.
Although its paint scheme and features changed over the years, “The General” still looks imposing enough. And its boiler is certified to operate through 2019 in the very unlikely chance it will return to the tracks after its 40-year rest.
The only other surviving train involved in the chase, “The Texas,” is housed at the Atlanta Cyclorama. Fuller and crew had to drive it in reverse to catch up with Andrews at Ringgold. Interestingly, the Southern Museum says “The Texas” doesn’t get as much notice as it should, given it was “the true eventual winner” of the race.
Afterward, I crossed the tracks to a small park, home to several signs remembering Big Shanty, Fuller and the Andrews Raiders. Big Shanty was also home to Camp McDonald, which trained Confederate troops. The camp was on land near the current Kennesaw City Hall.
Kennesaw Trains owner Kevin Mills told me business in downtown has been slow over the past few months and a couple of restaurants have relocated or closed. But condos and offices are expected to go up when better times return.
Main Street is also home to Wildman’s Civil War Surplus Shop operated by Dent Myers. Myers in 2008 applauded a U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming Americans' right to defend themselves with guns.
In 1982, Kennesaw passed a law that every head of household must own a firearm. That law is still on the books.
Nearby, the city is building a pedestrian tunnel so that visitors and locals can walk from one side of the busy tracks to the other.
Unfortunately, it will not be completed in time for this year’s Big Shanty Festival, which is this Saturday and Sunday. It features more than 250 arts and craft booths, a parade and fireworks.
• Click here for more info on the Southern Museum.
• Click here for more info on the Big Shanty Festival.