Full Steam Ahead

Like many Americans, Bob LaPrelle has loved trains from an early age. However, the longtime CEO of the Museum of the American Railroad never thought he would work with trains for a living. Mr. LaPrelle is a Dallas native. He graduated from Hillcrest High School before heading to the University of Texas. During these important years, his love for trains only grew.

“My dad’s family lived next door to a gentleman who had a huge Lionel setup over his garage. They took me down there one day, I was about eight or 10 years old, and I was blown away,” Mr. LaPrelle recalls. “He was like a grandfather to me. He would sit down, talk to me and spend time with me. I would go and spend a whole Saturday there.”

It was a trip he and his family took in the summer of 1969 on the Santa Fe Railroad’s Texas Chief from Dallas to Chicago that cemented his lifelong passion. “We went first-class in the sleepers. It had the full-length dome cars. We went into Dearborn Station. I have been running off that ever since,” Mr. LaPrelle shares. 

After graduating college, Mr. LaPrelle returned to Dallas and got on the board of the Age of Steam Railroad Museum, which was then housed in Dallas Fair Park. In 1988, after the business he had been working for was sold, the museum’s board asked him to come aboard full-time, and considering it a short-term assignment, he agreed. “I said, ‘I will give you a year.’ That was in September 1988 and here I am all these years later,” Mr. LaPrelle says. “I do enjoy it. It is a labor of love. I am so vested now, I want to see it through. The City of Frisco saw the potential in what we could be and invested in us. Now, we are working hard to deliver on that promise.”

The Move to Frisco

In 2011, Mr. LaPrelle and Kellie Murphy, the organization’s COO, spearheaded the museum’s relocation from Fair Park, where it had been since 1963, to Frisco, where it is now located near the Frisco Discovery Center. By August 2013, the relocation was complete. “When we made the decision to move and we signed the development agreement with the city, I drove back down to Fair Park, looked around and wondered how we were going to get it to Frisco. We had no idea,” Mr. LaPrelle says. “We had thousands of tons of iron and steel to move and it had not been out of there, some of it, in 30 or 40 years.”

Prior to the move, the museum sent a letter to Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), which is headquartered in Fort Worth, requesting assistance with the move. BNSF obliged by installing a switch in their main line to accommodate the new tracks in Frisco. They also did not charge the museum for the move.

Currently, visitors can see the 60 pieces in the collection through guided tours leaving from the Frisco Heritage Museum, Thursday through Saturday. Among the highlights are a Union Pacific “Big Boy” steam locomotive and a diesel electric locomotive that once pulled a supply train in Russia during World War II. The museum also features electric locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars and other decommissioned railroad equipment. 

The museum’s latest additions are from the Santa Fe Collection, consisting of four locomotives which came to Frisco from the California State Railroad Museum in 2017. “It makes us the largest repository of Santa Fe rolling stock in the nation. If you want to see Santa Fe’s history, you come here. We think that is a really neat thing because we are down the road from their corporate offices (in Fort Worth),” Mr. LaPrelle says. 

Again, BNSF helped defray the costs of moving those locomotives from Calif. to Frisco, doing the job at half price and providing the flat cars at no cost. 

All four of the new locomotives are on home rails and the former California State Railroad Museum equipment is officially part of the permanent collection at the Museum of the American Railroad. Remaining funds from the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust will be applied to cosmetic restoration of the locomotives (with the Santa Fe units given priority).

Rolling Toward a Bright Future

Later this year, the museum will open a model train exhibit inside a 3,000-square-foot space at the Frisco Discovery Center, realizing Mr. LaPrelle’s vision. “We always knew we would have a model train component, but we thought it would be down the road when we built our permanent building, when we have a permanent space for it,” Mr. LaPrelle says. 

The City of Frisco is providing improvements to the space, which will all take place before the layout is installed. Improvements will include painting, drywall work and electrical service. Through the Community Development Corporation, Frisco has funding for painting the upper walls and ceilings in an inkwell black, matte finish that will reduce the cavernous feel of the 30-foot ceiling. Work on a light grid, that was completed in January, now supports more than 100 LED lighting fixtures. 

Earlier this year, Dallas resident Jane Sanders donated her late husband’s 2,500-square-foot model train set to the museum. The museum needed to raise funds to move the massive set and secure indoor space to display the trains. A $300,000 donation from Amanda and Brint Ryan of Dallas was crucial in taking the exhibit from dream to reality. “We could not have done it without them,” Mr. LaPrelle says. “He (Mr. Ryan) likes model trains. He collects Lionel. He has all girls, so I think he kind of likes doing this.” The donation will help disassemble, transport and re-assemble the collection. The model train exhibit is set to open in time for Spring Break 2018.

The Frisco Community Development Corporation voted to make more than 3,000 square feet of indoor space at the Discovery Center available for the train set. The city provided services to fill in doorways to allow for a special mural that accompanies the layout as a backdrop. The reproduction of this hand-painted mural backdrop will be a photo reproduction. Signage Systems in Dallas is creating digital files of photographic images of the mural from the Sanders’ residence to apply to the walls of the display.

The other part of the space will house an O-Scale layout from the Neuhoff family, that once ran a successful meat packing operation in Dallas. 

However, the biggest current priority for the museum is laying the final seven tracks, which will span about 6,000 feet, to complete the museum’s infrastructure. Once that track is down, the priority shifts to installing a period-style train shed over the rolling stock, a covering which will span more than 100,000 feet and cost between $5.5 and $6 million. 

Once the shed is installed, building of the actual museum or the “head house” building, as Mr. LaPrelle calls it, will commence. “The real tragedy is that we are spending all our money on infrastructure right now, which we have to do, and the collection continues to be outdoors, exposed to the elements,” he says. “We have not done any major restoration now in about eight years, so our goal is to get it under cover as soon as possible and protected from the elements. Then, when we do restoration, it is lasting and permanent. We really want to get to that point. We do have a couple of pieces that are more than 100 years old.”

If you have not visited the museum in a while, take the whole family to check out the new sites. There is something for all ages and history can be viewed first-hand, right here in Frisco!