Steam power seems about as technologically advanced in this day of computers and space stations as stone tools. But the invention of the steam engine was a revolutionary leap in its day.
To get a better perspective on the role of steam in our nation’s history, you need go no farther than the Hesston Steam Museum in LaPorte County.
The museum opened Memorial Day weekend for its 63rd season, which includes a 150th anniversary tribute to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
No ceremonial golden spikes will be driven, as was done on May 10, 1869, in Utah to mark the linking of the two coasts by rail. But museum General Manager Ted Rita said a display will demonstrate what the event meant for travel, turning what was a weeks-long trip into one that took a few days.
“We are really targeting young people, but adults will like it, too,” Rita said.
“Our whole thing is to capture people with imagination and show how important the machinery we are exhibiting was, not only in America but around the world.
“Steam power raised people out of the torturous existence of animal power on the farm and in travel. For older people, travel was especially hard. I don’t think young people today understand how tough that was and how steam improved lives.”
The exhibit on the railroad’s anniversary depicts the improvement with a map on which visitors can trace the trip they took to see the display. It tells them how long the trip would have taken via animal power.
“Kids can see the benefit of the railroad and the freedom they have with the automobile and the ability they have to move around.”
Rita notes that the Transcontinental Railroad was also important in helping unite the country after the Civil War.
“The only thing I could compare it to is the internet, but to the people of the time it was even bigger,” Rita said.
“It was part of Abraham Lincoln’s vision for the country after the war to not only symbolically bring us back together but physically as well as we moved from the bloodiest time in American history.”
Rita said the gift shop, The Depot Store, has stocked up on items related to the Transcontinental Railroad, including a magazine on the event linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads.
At the museum's sawmill, visitors can see its 60-inch saw blade in action.
“Kids today think wood comes from Menards, and they forget that it began with trees and that we are using a resource they can see at the mill. They can sit on the logs and see the lumber being cut. We use the lumber for projects around the museum. Right now we are building a caboose, and we have an office where we use a lot of the lumber.”
He said the caboose will replace one destroyed along with much of the museum’s equipment in a fire in May 1985. Rita said buying a caboose can cost $900,000, and it also needs to be able to operate on the museum's gauge, which is not the standard width used today.
Some of the trees cut up by the sawmill come from deadfall on the museum’s 155-acre grounds, but many are donated by excavating companies in the area. In addition to building and remodeling, the wood goes to furniture made by volunteers on the museum staff.
Even the scrap is used to fire the boilers that run the machinery and in the museum smokehouse, where Rita said two or three kinds of meat are curing at any given time. The gift shop sells barbecue sauces to sample with the meats.
No visit to the museum is complete without a stop at Doc’s Soda Fountain. Though not steam powered, the authentic 1930s soda bar serves up ice cream sodas, floats and banana splits along with a variety of burgers, fries, salads and other fare.
Rita said the museum is working to become fully handicapped accessible. The new caboose will have a lift to accommodate people in wheelchairs.
For tickets, hours and events, visit hesston.org.