CHARLESTOWN — When it debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, the Silver Meteor was a marvel of modern travel with luxury amenities affordable for the average citizen.
Built for Seaboard Railroads 10 years after the end of the Great Depression and just at the start of World War II, the train marked the beginning of a new era in locomotives as railroads transitioned to diesel from the previous steam-powered cars.
One important piece of this history is on its way to restoration after the City of Charlestown recently donated an observation car that was on the inaugural run of the Silver Meteor to a Louisville group intent on returning it to its former glory.
The Louisville Railway Company, Inc. is raising funds to help relocate the Seaboard Air Line observation car 6400 from its spot on Indiana 62 in Charlestown, where it has been for 25 years.
Mayor Treva Hodges said the city had hoped to restore the car — which had been gifted by Charles Nicklies — for use as a warming station at the Charlestown Family Fun Park. After looking into the cost of moving the car, city leaders realized it wasn’t feasible to take on. And, renovations were compounded after vandals smashed the historic windows.
“We’re just glad it’s going to a good home,” Hodges said. “I hate that we couldn’t make good use of it but it was just too far gone from the vandalism because it wasn’t just the windows, there were some other things that was just going to be too expensive to repair.”
John Owen, president of the nonprofit, said it could cost $10,000 to $12,000 just to move the car and another $500,000 to $600,000 to renovate to Amtrak standards. Cosmetic improvements alone would be about $20,000, he said.
But it’s a task the group sees as a worthy one, to restore the more than 80-year-old car and help share its unique history.
At the World’s Fair, the train was part of the Futurama exhibit hosted by General Motors, which had been instrumental in trains switching to diesel. Sleek, lightweight and fast, the train promoted modernism and a look ahead. This was the train of tomorrow.
“The cars were very bright, very cheery,” Owen said. “It was an all-coach streamliner with at that time modern conveniences, it was futuristic, it looked towards a future design.”
The train included a dining car and a lounge car that was more accessible — older trains had observation lounges available only for the passengers who had paid for sleeper cabins.
“This was for the average person — a classy train at a coach price,” Owen said. “Tickets would have been very very reasonable depending on the distance and where you traveled from.”
The car also has its tragic history. In 1942, eight people were killed when the train was rear-ended in South Carolina by a steam locomotive. It had been carrying 514 passengers and was the second train wreck involving military personnel during the early part of World War II.
Development is expected to begin in about a month on the land where the car has been for the past quarter century, and Mayor Hodges said she’s glad the car — if it can’t be used in Charlestown — can be restored by the group to educate in another area.
“We’re very fortunate that we’ve found a way to give it a new life and it helps us begin to develop that section and it helps restore the train,” she said. “It’s going to a loving home.”