Longtime train buff gets Collierville museum on a roll
By MICHAEL DONAHUE
The Commercial Appeal
COLLIERVILLE (AP) — When he was 13, Tom Powell put together train models at the old Hobbies of Memphis hobby shop.
At 45, he’s still putting trains together, but they’re made of stainless steel, not plastic, and considerably bigger.
“Who wants to play with a toy train when you’ve got the real thing,” he said.
Powell is director of operations for the Collierville Train Museum, which is part of the Memphis Transportation Museum, a not-for-profit organization formed in 1980 for the purpose of preserving historical transportation artifacts for future generations. He and his stepfather Marshall Criss operate and manage the museum — a collection of vintage trains, which includes The Tennessean restaurant near the Collierville town square.
The Memphis Transportation Museum never had a home; the trains were parked in various locations, including the old International Harvester plant, over the years.
Even though he’s had a career in computers — working with Wendy’s, The Pyramid and IBM, since graduating from Memphis State University in 1985 — Powell always had a love of trains.
People dining on foie gras and veal might not realize they’re sitting inside a piece of Americana. “This particular car we’re in, there’s only about 12 of these left in existence,” said Powell as he stood in The Tennessean’s lounge car. “(This) car was originally built in ’47. It was off the Wabash Railroad.”
One of the “diners” or dining cars is from the Santa Fe Chief, one of only three in existence. The other is from a legendary train known as the Phoebe Snow.
“So, in its own right, each of these cars is very much historically significant in the railroad history today in America,” says Powell.
A native Memphian, Powell grew up around trains. “My great-grandfather was a conductor for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. So, you always heard stories about the railroad. You’d go over to his house and there’s always memorabilia and pictures. And he’d throw you in the car and you’d go down to the railroad yard.”
At 7, Powell got his first toy train — an American Flyer on a figure-eight track nailed to a piece of plywood — as a Christmas present. “It was a cheap set — my dad was a football coach. What could we afford? A little plastic engine, a plastic tender and it had two or three cars and a caboose. I remember it having some cardboard billboards and cardboard people. I still have the set to this day.”
Whenever his mother shopped at Goldsmith’s, Powell visited nearby Hobbies of Memphis. Finally, Pat Plemons, who owned the store, hired him to put together radio-controlled cars and boats for shoppers who didn’t want to put them together themselves.
Plemons also got Powell to put together model trains for his personal collection.
“In 1974, the Southern Railroad was looking to run some excursion trains from Memphis to Corinth, Miss., and back,” Powell said.
“They were trying to find somebody that would sponsor these deals, sell all the tickets and staff the train and run it. They’d lease you a locomotive and crew and a train.”
Plemons and his employees, including 13-year-old Powell, took on the job.
They called it Sentimental Journeys Inc. Plemons was president and Powell was special assistant to the president, delivering messages and running errands.
“I could not have run the Sentimental Journeys or Hobbies of Memphis without kids like Tommy,” Plemons said. “Tommy was the muscle and the energy.”
Powell often got to ride in the cab.
“You’re flying down the tracks at 70 mph in this thing, and nothing in there is bolted down. Everything is moving. I remember a little water line busted, spraying water all over everything. They’d just reach up there and turn off the valve and never miss a lick. You’d be pitch black. You had to put on goggles ’cause the cinders would blow in your face. You’d take them off and you’d look like a raccoon,” he says.
Sentimental Journeys decided to buy some railroad cars instead of leasing all of them from Southern. “Back then there was a big tax loophole about buying things, donating them to nonprofits and writing them off on your taxes.”
With that in mind, Sentimental Journeys formed the Memphis Transportation Museum.
The first car they bought was the Santa Fe Chief lounge car, which they found in Jackson, Miss.
“We started ripping out the interior. There’d been hoboes living in it and they caught it on fire. It had been in the Pearl River flood in Jackson. You could see the water lines.”
Later, the restored train was used in the 1989 movie “Mystery Train,” which was filmed in Memphis.
In 1985, Southern Railroad quit running excursion trips, so Sentimental Journeys chartered other railroad companies, including Illinois Central and Union Pacific, to pull their cars.
They began running private trips. “We ran a train one year called ’The Hog Train,’ from Little Rock to Memphis when Arkansas played the Liberty Bowl.”
And they continued to rebuild cars. “By 1986, we were the largest, privately owned operating passenger train company in the United States other than Amtrak.”
The late Herman Wright Cox, who was mayor of Collierville and a train fan, was responsible for bringing Sentimental Journeys to Collierville.
“He contacted us and said, ’Hey, if I get a couple of sidings built out here, would you guys put some of your cars out here?”’
In 1994, the group took nine cars to Collierville with the intention of opening a restaurant and a museum near the town square. But during a dove hunt that year, Powell was injured when a fellow hunter’s 12-gauge shotgun discharged point blank. “I had 384 entry wounds — holes in my lung, liver, pancreas, spleen, colon, upper and lower intestines. I spent 46 weeks doing nothing.”
The restaurant and museum “just stopped dead in its tracks.”
In 1995, Sentimental Journeys stopped running trains. The next year, Powell and Plemons began bringing in caterers for special events on one of the Collierville trains.
Meanwhile, Lou Byrd, who worked in body shops for various car dealerships, did his best for 10 years to keep the trains in shape, and to rent them for wedding receptions and other special occasions.
Then in 2005, Powell met with Plemons and other members of the Memphis Transportation Museum board of directors to figure out what to do with the collection of railroad cars.
“Everybody agreed, ’We need to do something and, yep, you’re the man to take it and go.’ My idea was to bring it back to life. I want to take the train cars, build them back to their original glory.”
He began by researching trains in the Memphis area. “The train that originally ran out of Memphis was the Memphis Special. It was replaced by The Tennessean.
“I started stumbling onto photographs of The Tennessean. The Tennessean ran stainless steel streamline cars. The Tennessean traveled through Collierville every day. And The Tennessean didn’t just come through Memphis; it ran from Memphis to D.C.”
Powell decided to turn the trains into a replica of The Tennessean. The original Tennessean took its inaugural trip on May 17, 1941.
“Back then Walter Chandler was the mayor of the city. Because of him and some of his political pull is how they ever got this train here.”
Powell contacted Lucia Outlan, Chandler’s daughter who lives in Collierville, to find more information.
Outlan had christened the original Tennessean engine when she was a little girl. Wearing a pink brocade dress and a Panama hat with a ribbon hanging down the back, she christened the train with bottles of water from the Mississippi River and the Potomac.
Powell searched for pictures of the old Tennessean. “Everything had to be put back authentic,” he said. “But we went one step further. We’re on live rail, so we rebuilt this stuff to run. We rebuilt it to current federal railroad standards.”
He chose 1948 as the look for The Tennessean. “It had bits and pieces of Art Deco.
“Today, 80 percent of America has never been on a train. Your perception of train travel is what you saw on television, what you saw in movies.
At the same time I had to deal with that 20 percent of America that had ridden trains and grew up and remembered.”
He put little brass lamps on the tables, which is what many people think should go on train tables.
But, in reality, lamps weren’t on train diner tables. “Table space is so small. If you ever look at a place setting on a train, it had like nine pieces of silverware. It was insane. They set every piece of silverware you could possibly use. There wasn’t room for anything.”
At the same time, Powell had specially made one-inch wooden blinds strung together with fabric made to fit the windows because that’s what originally was there.
David Krog, who opened Madidi restaurant in Clarksdale, Miss., was hired as executive chef for the restaurant, which opened in late March 2007. “If you go look at our kitchen, it’s only 4 feet wide and 12 feet long. Our stove won’t even hold a whole sheet pan,” said Powell.
Powell plans to restore more trains, and to put a bed and breakfast in one of them. But he doesn’t want to stop with trains. He’d like to delve more into the history of FedEx, Republic Airlines, Southwest Airlines, the Memphis Fire Department and Greyhound Bus Co. “Memphis has an incredible history of transportation.”
Outlan agreed to christen the new Tennessean and often eats at the restaurant.
“I feel like I’m back in the old days,” she said. “I feel like it’s the way it used to be.”
Information from: The (Mem-phis) Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com
Published in The Messenger 1.29.08