ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — There’s a museum in the Twin Cities that, on certain days, transforms into Grand Central Station. In this week’s Finding Minnesota, we follow the tracks to the Minnesota Transportation Museum in St. Paul.

The train station on Pennsylvania Avenue in St. Paul comes complete with all the bells and whistles. A working crew couples locomotives and train cars, while using an actual turntable to change the tracks.

From the sky or from the ground, what you’re seeing is actually part of a living, breathing museum.

“Everybody loves to ride the train, young and old. It’s a beautiful ride, it goes along the river,” said Wayne Merchant, chairman and volunteer coordinator, said.

The brakeman, conductor and engineer working outside are all volunteers for the Minnesota Transportation Museum. They are getting train cars ready to take visitors on scenic excursions from St. Paul to Osceola, Wisconsin. While inside, volunteers take you on a different kind of excursion.

“A lot of stories to be told here. Railroading in Minnesota, St. Paul, a lot of history in this area and this is kind of the hub of it all,” Merchant said.

“\Much of what you see in the museum was built well over a century ago. That includes a passenger car which was built in 1898 and still looks like it did when it was chugging across western America. Parts of the building haven’t been touched in a hundred years.

(credit: CBS)

Barb Sheldon is both the office manager for the museum and a Minnesota train historian. Her tours roll through the Jackson Street roundhouse which was built in 1907. These days it’s where volunteers restore engines for the run to Osceola.

Sheldon’s love is steam engines — locomotives that once ruled the tracks before they were phased out by diesel engines. But here, they’re still royalty.

“This is 328. Many, many people come just to see this little girl because they remember her,” said Barb. “I love this old girl.”

The museum has been in the Twin Cities for 50 years, but will soon be celebrating its 20th year on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s not just the trains that have changed, it’s the people, too. In other words, people were a lot smaller then, and so were the sleeper cars.

“This room alone [inside this passenger car] would be intended to sleep eight people. Two per bed,” Sheldon said.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the love for trains. The museum has become a place to learn without ever having to leave the station — unless, of course, you want to.

“My hope for the museum is that we can maintain that history and explain that history to the kids,” Sheldon said.

About 200 volunteers help keep the Minnesota Transportation Museum running. They are now taking reservations for their spring and summer train excursions to Osceola, Wisconsin. Donations are also a big part of what keeps the museum operating.

John Lauritsen