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Living Exhibit at Travel Town : New Engine Fires Up Fraying Locomotive Collection

June 04, 1988|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

It was oddly stubby in form, tired yellow in color and a little rebellious in demeanor before a crew of workers could get it settled down.

First the truck that brought it ripped up some miniature railroad track, and then the crane boom it was suspended from knocked a limb from a eucalyptus tree.

Despite that inauspicious first impression, the funny little railroad engine that arrived before daybreak Thursday at Travel Town in Los Angeles lifted the staff of the Griffith Park museum to a state of curator's ecstasy.

"Precisely what we wanted has landed in our laps," said Linda Barth, Travel Town planning and development director.

Engine Operational

One redeeming quality sets the former naval switching engine apart from the other 18 more elegant and romantic steam and electric locomotives in Travel Town's collection.

"He works," Barth cooed. "He's operational."

Because of that, Barth said, the new engine will play an important role in the future of the beloved but badly fraying railroad museum.

After being cleaned up and painted Travel Town red for a dedication July 15, the locomotive will become a living exhibit and the workhorse that will push and pull the other exhibits through the museum's first major renovation since 1965.

The engine was donated by the McDonnell Douglas Corp., which acquired it from the Navy sometime after its service in World War II.

Another museum also wanted the engine. Barth said she didn't hesitate to press her claim in the zealous, cajoling style that was the trademark of Charley Atkins, the late city maintenance employee who almost single-handedly assembled the Travel Town collection in the 1950s by dogging railroad companies for donations.

"I wrote long, passionate, emotional letters about our museum's plans and goals," Barth said. "We kept offering them lunches and tours. It worked."

The acquisition is the museum's first since 1961, when it picked up a Red Car as scrap for $2,000.

Barth said it presages a new look for Travel Town displays that have grown ragged through age, weathering, vandalism and the practice of letting visitors walk over them at will.

In 1985, she said, the department hired the curators of the Sacramento State Railroad Museum to evaluate Travel Town's future. Their conclusion was brighter than expected.

Unbelievable Collection'

"They said, 'You've got the most unbelievable collection of locomotives west of St. Louis,' " Barth said. " 'You can make an exceptionally high-quality museum out of this.' That's what we're going to do."

The plan, adopted last September by the Parks and Recreation Commission, is to winnow out extraneous exhibits to focus on only two subjects, railroads and fire equipment. That will mean removing several military airplanes and a V-1 rocket, all of which will be restored and exhibited by the armed forces, Barth said.

The fire exhibit, housed in a large metal shed at the museum, accumulated over the years through "opportunity acquisitions"--meaning, Barth said, that someone called in and said, " 'I've got a fire wagon. You can have it if you want it.' "

The collection was consequently incoherent.

"You couldn't tell a story about life in L.A.," Barth said. "You just had things with wheels attached."

'Educational and Recreational'

Now it has been reorganized to tell the story of the Los Angeles Fire Department, from 1869 to 1940.

"That's our goal, to be educational and recreational at the same time," Barth said.

That exhibit will be rededicated during the July 15 ceremony.

The revitalization of the railroad exhibit will take longer. Two volunteer groups are restoring railroad cars. One, a self-propelled, gasoline-powered motor car, will become the museum's second moving exhibit by 1990. The other, a lounge car called the Little Nugget, will be restored to its Victorian splendor.

The master plan calls for an operational train possibly running as far as the Los Angeles Zoo, two miles away.

The engine that will pull it has not yet been selected. Barth said she is personally partial to Stockton Terminal & Eastern No. 1, a steam engine that worked continuously in Northern California from 1864 until it was donated in 1953. Its restoration, an expensive project, lies somewhere in the future.

Pep Into Plans

Thursday's new arrival put some pep into Barth's immediate plan to move the cars around until, like the fire equipment, they form some kind of coherent order.

"We're really starting to earn back some of the respect of the rail fan community," she said.

They didn't try to start it Thursday. "They have to spritz the engine," Barth said, explaining the delay.

But they did give it a name. It came without one, having been built for anonymous military duty. Henceforth, it will be known as "Charley Atkins," after the man who built Travel Town.

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