ST. ALBANS CITY – Once upon a time, 200 trains a day passed through St. Albans City.
It was the railroad hub leading to Montreal, New York and Boston. It housed the headquarters of a railroad company that, through subsidiaries and partnerships, reached as far away as Minnesota.
Money from the railroad helped build the downtown and sent two St. Albans men to the governorship, and the railroad had such a profound impact on the city that some still refer to St. Albans as the “Rail City.”
It’s this history that the Saint Alban Museum is now looking to capture, kicking off its “Rail City” project last month with the hope that, according to museum director Alex Lehning, the museum might be able to better tell the railroad history that helped create St. Albans.
“It’s kind of our marquis story,” Lehning said. “How can we share it with the next generation?”
The museum’s answer to that question is an oral history of sorts. Over the next year or so, the museum are partnering with Northwest Access Television to record histories from those whose lives were tied to the railroad.
Those interviews will be recorded and presented in what Lehning described as the museum’s first audio-visual component that will serve as a centerpiece in a renovated railroad room.
“We recognize that we’re kind of reaching this tipping point, where the last generation that has a personal or family connection to the railroad is with us,” Lehning said.
The community’s history with the railroad spills into the museum’s other exhibits, Lehning said, a fact the museum would be considering as it expands its railroad exhibit alongside its “Rail City” project.
There were the butter trains that fueled Franklin County’s agricultural economy – the same butter trains that drew Confederate raiders to St. Albans during the Civil War.
The Smith family, which is enshrined with its own room in the Saint Albans Museum, built their fortune as railroad tycoons, running multiple businesses in the city, including Peoples Trust Company and, in the 1890s, the Messenger.
“There’s an opportunity to tell a larger story connecting these exhibits,” Lehning said. “That’s what makes it such a unique story.”
The museum began exploring an expansion to its railroad exhibit last year, forming the steering committee currently coordinating the Rail City project from museum members who trace their background back to the railroad.
According to a press release from the Saint Albans Museum, the museum is supporting the project with $13,000 raised for a reserve fund with almost all of those funds coming from a contribution courtesy of Arthur Bell, Jr., a committee member whose father worked on the Central Vermont Railroad.
Per Lehning, the museum is looking to have its Rail City project completed and in place for the museum’s annual June opening in 2020.
Already, according to Lehning, the first interviews are planned and the museum’s received its first photographs for the exhibit. The museum also reached out to neighboring historical societies in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties, as well as the Central Vermont Railroad Historical Society.
The Rail City project comes a year after the museum’s last large project, Farming in Franklin County.
According to Lehning, the museum is actively looking for new exhibits and expansions annually as a way to keep the museum “fresh, engaging and relevant.”
While the long term Rail City project is underway, already the museum has updated some of its other exhibits this year in order to provide that kind of fresher engagement.
Its military hall now features references to St. Albans natives who served in the 101st Airborne Division of Band of Brothers fame and references in honor of the American Legion’s centennial.
The museum is also welcoming touring exhibits on the renewal of Abenaki agriculture and The Last of the Hill Farms.
Next year, the same year that the Rail City project should come to fruition, Lehning said the museum will also look to update its women’s exhibit in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Women’s Suffrage.
“There’s always new stories to tell and ways to be engaging,” Lehning said. “We feel that the best way one can live up to that promise is to bring new stories to life.”
In the meantime, however, the museum is looking for anyone with personal experiences relative to the railroad to share their stories with the museum and anyone who might be willing to share artifacts relative to the railroad.
The museum can be reached online at www.stamuseum.org and at (802) 527-7933.
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