|The Texas has been soda blasted to remove rust, old paint (Picket photo)|
For Nathaniel Watts and Max Sigler, a warm summer afternoon in the massive Back Shop of the North Carolina Transportation Museum just got a whole lot hotter. Plucking rivets from a super-heated oven, the team drives them into a water tank that fed a Civil War steam locomotive.
The locomotive, largely stripped of bright colors and almost drab in appearance, sits on tracks just 20 yards away. The effects of soda blasting give the visitor a real sense of the craftsmanship that joined wood and iron to create a mighty machine of commerce. This is the Texas, the engine that many call the hero of the Great Locomotive Chase in 1862.
The Atlanta History Center, which is paying Steam Operations Corp. to remove rot and rust and restore the locomotive at this shop in Spencer, must make an important decision: What will the Texas look like at its new home in Atlanta?
|Max Sigler has worked months on the Texas (Picket photos)|
|Several years ago at old Cyclorama location|
It’s not a process that’s being taken lightly – the AHC has a committee that will help determine the paint scheme. Rail company orders are being studied and the center is reaching out to experts and performing paint analysis.
“How can this engine best educate folks? What story do we want to tell with this engine?” asks Jackson McQuigg, vice president of properties at the AHC.
The locomotive, which sat in the former Atlanta Cyclorama building for nearly 90 years, is being moved (along with the painting of the Battle of Atlanta) to the AHC campus in the Buckhead neighborhood.
The story of the Texas, which was built in 1856, makes the color scheme choice a bit complicated.
Should the locomotive have a Civil War appearance? Companies such as the Western & Atlantic Railroad at that time had a livery of colors that might include bright red, blue, brown, gold and green wheels and accents.
“With the burst of railroad expansion and competition, the bright colors were (part of) an arms race in which builders muscled into the market,” said Jim Wilke, a railroad historian in California who has done extensive research on locomotive and tender paint schemes. “The more dazzling the locomotive, the better chance you had of getting a purchase.”
The bright-color fad lasted only a few decades. Like thousands of other locomotives, the Texas was converted from burning wood to coal. They didn’t look so fancy when covered in black soot.
But there was much more at play. Railroad companies were scaling up. They poured money into infrastructure, more powerful trains and extensive rail lines. Locomotives took on a plainer appearance as uniformity took hold.
The Texas was black by 1880, said Wilke, and it stayed that way until it ended service in 1907.
Will the restored Texas have that paint scheme? Wilke said he believes that’s an appropriate choice.
“The only period possible for this locomotive is 1886 to 1907,” he recently told the Picket. “The lettering was a deep yellow ochre to imitate gold. In the 1880s, it was shaded a drab color.”
|Rivets are heated to join iron plates on tender water tank|
But there’s more. The Atlanta History Center also is figuring in work done by Atlanta artist-historian Wilbur Kurtz, who saved the Texas from the salvage yard and in the mid-1930s restored it to more closely resemble what was believed to be its original appearance.
It’s here where the plot thickens.
While Kurtz spoke with Civil War veterans and was married to the daughter of the conductor on the General (the locomotive that was seized by Union raiders and chased by the Texas and other engines), historians have not been able to locate paint schemes for Danforth, Cooke and Company, which manufactured the Texas.
“It is a great mystery,” said Wilke.
Locomotives were rolling attention getters
The AHC’s McQuigg points out that the two locomotives present at the 1869 joining of Union and Central Pacific rails at Promontory Summit in Utah territory also were decorative.
|Historic meeting of the railroads in 1869|
Richard Carroll is an engineer at Golden Spike National Historic Site. His small team gives demonstrations three times a day (May 1 through Columbus Day) with replicas of the Jupiter and No. 119.
“We do believe our colors are accurate, as close as we know,” said Carroll, adding the park has consulted with Wilke.
“Locomotives were considered advertising pieces for the railroad as well as modes of power,” said the engineer. “For almost all of the engines of that era, it was very common for them to be decorative and ornate, with brass and gold leaf.”
|Replicas of the Jupiter and 119 (NPS photos)|
He said the Jupiter’s blue features are particularly popular with visitors.
When the Western & Atlantic had the Texas built, railroads had “highly individualistic designs,” said Wilke. Bright color accents grabbed the public’s attention and were a form of advertising before logos came along. Locomotives were kept cleaned and polished. “This was a capital investment.”
Wilke, who has been contacted by the AHC, said the Texas’ small wheels up front provided more traction. They reflect the struggle “of keeping freight going on an antiquated system.”
AHC officials said the tender being restored was not with the Texas during the Civil War. Much of the locomotive itself was replaced over the decades, including its large boiler, wheels, parts of the cab and more.
Within two decades after the Civil War, changes in the nation’s rail system made it possible for “a (rail) car from Georgia … to roll all the way into Portland, Ore,” said Wilke.
'Wilbur got it right for his time'
|The Texas with a different number in 1907 (Atlanta History Center photo)|
The Texas finally ran out of steam in 1907, and it was bound for scrap, like the locomotives at Golden Spike.
But Kurtz stepped in and raised money for its eventual placement in the Cyclorama building at Grant Park in 1927.
He oversaw the locomotive and tender restoration in 1936. Regarding the colors, “Wilbur got it right for his time,” said McQuigg.
The balloon stack and cab, which still has some of its original wood, were painted brown. The wheels and cowcatcher became a bright red. The bands, or belts, around the boiler, the sand dome, some pipes and the valve chests were a dull gold.
Before he did that, Kurtz had the Texas partially sand blasted and looked at paint scheme orders the Western & Atlantic placed for other locomotives. He was, like restorers today, fighting rust and rot on the locomotive and tender.
|The General on display in Kennesaw, Ga. (Picket photo)|
Kurtz was consumed with the appearance of the General and how the Texas would compare.
“We have this group of Yankees who saved the Yankee engine,” McQuigg said. “Kurtz is trying to rescue the hero of the chase. He is not only trying to preserve it, but present it in an equally positive light as the General.” (The General is housed at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, northwest of Atlanta)
Wilke said he, too, believes Kurtz did the best he could. The artist-historian spoke with people who had memories of the engine, Wilke said. But nuances and precise details may have become lost.
“It is like asking them what color is the car your grandmother drove?”
|Color scheme used by Kurtz on tender tank|
Several factors will lead to decision
It’s possible the Texas had some bronze-green features before it was painted black by about 1880.
“Black was a new color coming into acceptance” and was considered a sign of progress. It reflected an emphasis on “putting your money into the road rather than frivolous trifles like a wine-colored locomotive," said Wilke.
The locomotive also underwent changes when the gauge, the distance between rails, was narrowed. That, too, would suggest a restoration to mimic its 1880s appearance, said Wilke. Locomotives might have planished iron with a blue/gray tint. "It was very bright in terms of the glittering metal."
The historian said whatever its choice, the AHC will do a good job with the restoration. “It has a very high standard of display and organization. I am certain it will do just fine.”
AHC officials said discoveries about the Texas, including an 1874 date for the boiler, will inform decisions on the appearance of the engine.
McQuigg said painting the Texas black would be keeping with its appearance for much of its life. “The Civil War is important … but there are other stories as well.” And, he said, paint can be reversible.
The AHC does not look at the paint scheme deliberations as a dilemma, but an opportunity, he said. And it is not bound by Kurtz’ interpretation or the appearance of the General.
“We are going to try to determine how it best tells the story,” McQuigg said. “We may surprise folks with how it appears. We may not.”
|Sigler cleans portion of water tank that fits on tender.|
|View from the boiler (Picket photos)|