Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series about the Aiken Together campaign that was recently announced to raise funds through private donations for the Center for African American History, Art and Culture, the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum and the funding to open a Savannah River Site Heritage Center. Today's story covers the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum.
Supporters of the reconstructed railroad depot have said that it will be a catalyst for economic development and revitalization of a portion of downtown Aiken that has been considered neglected for years.
The building, located on the corner of Union Street and Park Avenue, houses the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum. The center opened in 2010 and several additions have been made to it over the last few years.
A total of 28 percent of the $2.9 million that the Aiken Together campaign is attempting to raise will go to the visitors center and museum. Aiken Railroad Depot Committee President Tim Simmons said there's lots of work left to do to help the Visitors Center and Train Museum reach its full potential.
Aiken was built around the railroad.
“The railroad is such a big part of Aiken's history,” Simmons said. “The railroad connected the east coast to the west coast. It had a tremendous effect on the lives of those living in Aiken, the state and the nation.”
The new building is a replica of the original railroad depot that was constructed in 1899. The reconstructed depot was a project that had been in the works since 2000 during the 20/20 campaign. The Aiken Railroad Depot Committee was able to obtain the original depot site plans from Norfolk Southern.
In Sept. 2010, Visitors Center and Train Museum opened after years of campaigning, planning and construction. Before it opened, ownership was transferred from the Friends of the Aiken Railroad Depot and Aiken Corp. to the City of Aiken.
A depot passenger shelter was also constructed and a restored caboose is in the process of being completed, Simmons said.
Successes of the new center
Simmons said that there was doubt that many people would visit the new facility, but the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum has drawn an average of 10,000 people a year. Simmons said that its not unusual to get 100 visitors a day, and those are just the ones who signed the books before leaving.
Children and adults alike have really enjoyed the train museum located on the second floor of the building, Simmons said. A total of 135.7 miles of the Southern Railway Company track from Charleston to Hamburg in 1916 is covered by a display of detailed dioramas that was constructed by Custom Model Railroads in Balitimore, Md. Research was headed by Aiken Railroad committee member Don Barnes who spent more than 1,400 hours conducting interviews with people who were familiar with the history of each town and surveying the land around each railroad depot depicted in the display.
Several events have been held at the center and interest in renting out two refurbished Pullman railroad cars for events have also piqued.
“The depot is not only educational but recreational, too and it provides opportunities for volunteering,” Simmons said.
The money from this campaign will help finish the interiors of the railroad cars as well as the construction of a baggage building that will include a catering kitchen and restrooms.
The exterior has been completely restored but the interior requires “extensive construction and furnishing.” Plans to bring them both back to where they were originally call for wood paneling, light fixtures and fabrics that would replicate the look of the cars from the early 1900s.
The railroad cars and baggage building will be connected by a deck and will be handicap accessible, Simmons said.
From a candlelight dinner to a small business meeting, Simmons feels that the completed project will offer a unique facility for residents to rent out at a reasonable price.
The Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum is located at 406 Park Ave. S.E. in Aiken.
Donations can be made to the Community Foundation of the Central Savannah River Area, Inc., Aiken Together Fund, P.O. Box 31358, Augusta, Ga., 30903. For more information about Aiken Together, email RSL@CFCSRA.org or call 706-724-1314.