Tuesday, October 28, 2014

All aboard! Leaving Huntsville for Memphis and the Mississippi!

One of the cool things about Huntsville, Alabama is its contrasts.

Take for example, transportation - or at least, transportation from a tourist perspective.

During a recent visit there, I had a chance to spend some time at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, featuring displays and history about as modern a form of transportation as you can get (although they still don't have that transporter beam technology perfected, yet...)
Chugging back into the past...

I toured that facility my first day there.

A few days later, I stepped back into the past about 150 years: I spent part of an afternoon enjoying the displays at the Huntsville Railway Depot and Museum.

The depot was built in 1860, and that building - the entire town, for that matter - played a key role during the American Civil War (1861-65).

At the time, the Southern Railway was the only railway line in America that ran all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. So you can easily see why the side that controlled that line had a decided transportation and logistical edge. The other main form of transportation back then would have involved using rivers - and traveling from the Atlantic to the Mississippi by boat could be quite a paddle.

The Union army captured the depot in 1862, without really much of a battle. They immediately converted part of the depot into a prison to hold the Confederate (CSA) army P.O.W.'s there until the end of the war. It was also used as a base for gathering supplies for the western theatre of military operations by the Union.

View of an old train from a new "train" 
while riding around the museum grounds.

While there was little bloodshed at the depot itself, many battles were fought up and down the line in the region for control of the line, which the Union managed to hang on to for the war's duration.

These days, visitors can view some old steam trains from the era, explore the depot - and even see some of the original graffiti written on the walls inside the third floor rooms of the depot by the captive CSA soldiers (authenticated by historians).
While I rode a "train" there,
I didn't get a chance to ride a handcar

You'll also find a mock-up of an old ticket booth and passenger waiting room, complete with mannequins wearing period outfits.

There are also several exhibits depicting life as it was lived back in the latter half of the 19th century.

Outside sits a caboose, that, in addition to being part of the exhibit, is used these days for children's birthday parties.

Visitors can also hop on board a small train and "ride the rails" around the park grounds past old buildings and trains. (A real lover of train travel, this was my favourite part of the visit!)

Although the facility is a museum now, it was not that long ago - not quite 50 years - that it was still used as an active passenger station, finally winding down that function in 1968. The line, which continued to transport people and goods after the War Between the States ended, saw a sharp rise in passenger traffic during World War II. However, by the early 1960s, as the plane started to become the favoured mode of travel, use of the line by passengers declined steadily and significantly, leading eventually to its closure.

However, these days, when you board the museum train and hear the "engineer" parrot the conductors' call of "All aboard!" from bygone days, you can close your eyes and, maybe, for a moment or two, pretend you're back in the 1860s, riding the rails to another Alabama adventure...

Want to see more photos from the museum? Visit All Aboard! at Facebook. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Zooming through space center triggers many memories

When someone mentions the space program to me, I think of NASA. I think of the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Mission Control, and the phrase, "Houston, we have a problem."

Until recently, I never thought of Huntsville, Alabama.

Stage 3 of a Saturn 5 rocket: not a mock-up.
Oh, I'd heard of Huntsville. But until I visited the northern Alabama city, I really had no clue what a huge role it played in the development and success of the U.S. space program.

That changed after spending an evening at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

It was Huntsville, Alabama that Wernher von Braun moved to after leaving Germany following the end of World War II. And that was where he actually worked on the rockets that eventually helped the U.S. win the race to the moon.

I found out all about this - and more - at this wonderful museum, that includes a world-renowned, hands-on Space Camp for both youngsters and adults.

Apollo 16 space capsule.
My schedule would not allow me to spend more than a few hours touring the facility, although I could easily have spent more time there. 

As it was, I got to see Stage 3 of a real Saturn V rocket (one of only three still in existence), I got to pretend I was John Glenn and sit in a mock-up of a Mercury 7 space capsule, I played a simulation game that saw me crash-land a space shuttle, and - this is the piece de resistance - I saw the actual Apollo16 space capsule that landed on the moon.

While wandering around, viewing the exhibits, snapping photos, talking with the docents that were there to answer any questions visitors had, I couldn't help but think of my dad.

Although we're Canadian, Dad was a huge believer in the space program. I remember when I was in Grade 1, my dad chose to keep me home from school to watch the launch of Friendship 7, to see John Glenn become the first astronaut to orbit the earth in a space capsule.

My dad reasoned that this event was to become a monumental part of our history, and he wanted me to recognize that and see it - "see it" both in terms of watching history happen on live TV as well as in terms of seeing what it meant in the bigger picture of our existence on this planet.

Of course, when the Apollo space capsule finally touched down on the moon and we saw a live broadcast from the moon that summer night in July, 1969, it was just as big an event - maybe bigger. 
Memorial bust: July 20, 1969.

We pulled the portable black and white TV out onto the patio and ran an extension cable into the house and cable hook-up in the wall. We sat out late that Sunday night, eating sandwiches, sipping drinks, and soaking up history.

It was more than just history for my dad, too.

When he was a kid back in the 1930s and '40s, reading Buck Rogers comics and Tom Swift sci-fi adventure books and watching Flash Gordon at the movie theatre every Saturday, he told anyone who would listen that our future was in the stars - one day, we would actually be able to fly off to other planets.

Of course, everyone pooh-poohed that and he took a lot of ribbing, even into the 1950s. None of his friends believed it could happen.

So it was certainly a huge day for him, when man landed on the moon.

It was a giant step for mankind - and an important milestone for my father, that day, too.

He didn't rub it in to anyone, didn't say, "I told you so." He just enjoyed the moment.

And he would have enjoyed the moments I spent at the Space and Rocket Center, too.

In fact, he probably was.

Hey, Mr. Spaceman...