WASHINGTON -- Visitors can stroll down a 40-foot slab of Route 66 and take a simulated ride aboard a 1950s-era elevated train from Chicago as part of a new Smithsonian exhibit that explores how trains and automobiles changed America.
The 26,000-square-foot exhibit, which opens Saturday at the National Museum of American History, includes 300 objects in 19 lively scenes, from a Buick dealership in Portland, Ore., to a vacation trailer park in 1930s Maine. It's the largest exhibit ever at the history museum.
"This is a country that has always wanted to move, and this is an exhibit that shows that in a vivid and compelling way," Smithsonian head Lawrence Small said Tuesday.
Visitors begin at a railroad stop in Santa Cruz, Calif., where a gleaming 1876 steam locomotive has just rolled into town. A bright yellow streetcar and a video of horse-drawn carriages gliding past the White House transports them to bustling Washington in the late 1890s. In one corner, visitors smell chocolate kisses, invented in 1907 when advances in transportation allowed them to be distributed without melting.
Longtime pieces from the museum's collection join new acquisitions in the first major renovation of the transportation collection since the American history museum opened in 1964.
A 1903 Winton touring car, the first car driven across the United States, used to sit in a row with other early automobiles. Now it's mired in a mud puddle, reflecting that the car was broken down for 19 of the 63 days it took to get from San Francisco to New York. Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker shared driving duties, and a mannequin of their dog, Bud, sits nearby with the goggles he wore.
Under a 199-ton steam locomotive known as "1401," which pulled President Roosevelt's funeral train part of the way from Georgia to Washington, a dozen speakers bellow with recordings of steam and train whistles, and visitors can eavesdrop on a conversation between the two mannequin engineers. The Chicago "L" train vibrates so realistically that Small held a hand rail when he climbed on Tuesday.
"We wanted it to be loud and exciting," said Janet Davidson, a historian for the exhibit. "We wanted to break that context of 'You're in a museum."'
The exhibit tells of country singer Merle Haggard's family, who traveled from Oklahoma to California on Route 66 to search for work during the Great Depression. There are stories about a North Carolina man who sued Pullman to try to desegregate train cars in the 1940s and freeways that cut through minority communities in Chicago in the 1950s.
But overall, the exhibit reflects America's optimism and eager embrace of life on wheels and rails since the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.
"Transportation has clearly driven the economic engine of the last century," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said Tuesday at an opening ceremony.
Brent Glass, director of the history museum, said Congress first put up $3 million to renovate the museum's transportation exhibit in 1998, but private donors footed most of the bill.
General Motors Corp. was the primary sponsor, with a donation of $10 million. Under a deal with GM, the exhibit space will be known as the General Motors Hall of Transportation for the next 30 years.
AAA donated $5 million, State Farm Insurance gave $3 million and ExxonMobil gave $2 million, the Smithsonian said. The History Channel donated money as well as video production.
Smithsonian's "America on the Move" exhibit: http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthemove/