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North Alabama Railroad Museum

Taylor McGaughy, Auburn University
The North Alabama Railroad Museum (NARM) celebrates the important role that railroads played in the expansion of the United States in general, with a focus on their significance to the history of north Alabama in particular. Located in Chase, Madison County, approximately two miles northeast of Huntsville, the facility features exhibits related to railroad history and displays numerous railroad locomotives and cars; it schedules train rides on select weekends throughout much of the year.
The centerpiece of the museum is the fully restored Chase Depot, a functional train stop. The original Chase Depot was located at an important crossroads of two major railroad lines: the Norfolk Southern, which ran through Chase between Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Louisville and Nashville, which ran through Chase between Dechard, Tennessee, and Gadsden, Etowah County. In the early 1900s, Henry B. Chase, a local farmer whose family owned a large nursery in Madison County, built the depot next to the railroad interchange in order to expand the business into a larger regional market. (The business incorporated as Chase Nursery in 1906, and Henry Chase would serve as mayor of Huntsville from 1918-1920.) This original depot was destroyed in a 1935 fire, and the Chase family replaced it on the site of the old one in 1937. The family restored that building to its original condition in 1966 and opened it as a museum. The Chase family still owns and operates the museum, but day-to-day operations are coordinated by a staff of volunteers.
The museum displays artifacts and photographs that provide visitors with an overview of railroad operations in north Alabama and south-central Tennessee, including a fully functioning signal post that flashes train instructions. The museum also has more than 30 locomotives and cars, collectively known as "rolling stock," that include an array of diesel-engine locomotives, coach, baggage, dining, and sleeper cars and cabooses. Many are open for tours, and several are used for train rides. The locomotives and rolling stock of the NARM were manufactured between 1911 and 1950 and used by passenger and freight lines that operated in northern Alabama.
The museum employs former railroad workers and engineers who repair and restore the cars owned by the NARM in an expansive work shed near the depot. Their expertise has enabled the museum to restore many rail cars donated by different organizations to their original layout and color scheme. For example, the former Lurleen Wallace Developmental Center in Decatur, Morgan County, donated an old caboose that it had used as a store, and technicians restored the entire caboose to its original look. They also completely gutted and restored a 1928 Bethlehem Steel Corporation car that the U.S. Postal Service used to deliver mail. Visitors can now walk through the restored car, which features oak boxes suspended from the ceiling that postal workers used to organize flat packages and a baggage section complete with hooks for the canvas bags filled with mail. A museum library, filled with a multimedia collection ranging from railroad books, instructional and technical manuals, videos, and model train magazines, is located in the old Chase Nursery office building across the tracks from the depot.
In its first 20 years, the museum sponsored excursions from Chase to Chattanooga, providing modern riders with a passenger experience much like that of older generations. In the mid-1980s, the museum purchased its own railroad track and right-of- way. In 1999, museum volunteers installed an additional 1.5 miles of track to extend the line by the museum, enabling a longer and more scenic round-trip experience for passengers. Visitors may now ride passenger cars pulled by a locomotive for an hour-long 10-mile train ride that runs through rural Madison County on various dates from March through December. Special events are held throughout the year, including for Easter, Mother?s Day, Father?s Day, Veteran?s Day, Halloween, and Christmas.
The museum formerly received funding from the Norfolk Southern Company, which it used to sponsor excursions on its trains and host special events, but this source of support has been discontinued. Currently, the museum functions entirely on the proceeds of excursion ticket sales and charitable donations. NARM offers annual memberships that include a monthly newsletter entitled White Flags and Full Steam, which keeps members informed about museum-related news.
The museum also hosts programs for school groups every year aimed towards elementary school children. They include a guided tour of the caboose with an expert who describes the lives of the brakemen who worked in cabooses, a tour of the U.S. Post Office railcar that teaches visitors how mail used to be delivered in America, a humorous but educational film about railroad safety, and a ride on the museum's Mercury and Chase rail line.
Published:  November 4, 2016   |   Last updated:  November 4, 2016