Why is there a coal-burning steam locomotive permanently parked in Freedom Park?


Since 1959 there’s been an unusual find in the middle of Freedom Park. Nestled among the park’s picturesque lake and trails, between its sports fields and creek, is an old locomotive that traveled many miles before ending up in its now permanent parking place.

The Gaineseville-Midland 301 was made in Philadelphia in 1920 and shipped to Florida where it pulled cars between small towns on the state’s coast for more than three decades.

In 1951, it was purchased by Gainesville-Midland, which gave it the number 301 and for eight years it went back and forth between Gainesville and Athens, Ga.

By 1959, steam engines were becoming less popular as diesel engine trains took over the tracks. The city of Charlotte had asked a company called Seaboard for a locomotive to display. That year, Seaboard purchased Gainesville-Midland and its 301, which they deemed the perfect gift for the Queen City.

The old locomotive rolled into town that fall and was installed at Freedom Park with a new paint job and a new name: The Freedom Park Express. Originally, it served as glorified playground equipment with children crawling across and under it.

But eventually that was seen as  dangerous and the train is now in a fenced-off area, with access to only its conductor’s chamber for those who want to get a taste of transportation during the early part of the 20th century.

Visit Freedom Park

WHAT: A 98-acre public park between Charlotte’s historic Dilworth and Myers Park neighborhoods

WHERE: 1900 East Blvd.

COST: Free

PRO TIP: Today, the train has been repainted with the number and name it had when it originally arrived in Charlotte. You’ll find it near the park’s central parking lot.

This story comes from Sarah Crosland’s book “Secret Charlotte: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure,” which you can buy on Amazon here or at local shops like Park Road Books and Paper Skyscraper. It’s a great read for anyone who loves Charlotte — and we’re not just saying that because she’s our former boss.

Photo: Colby Alvino


  1. When I was a kid we had free reign of that train. I remember you could crawl under it and climb up in a hollow area, and we also used to climb up top to swing the bell back and forth.

  2. Anyone else remember when you could climb up under it into the furnace? As kids we used to climb all over it in the 60’s. Great memories. Too bad we live in such a litigious society now and all the fun stuff gets closed down.

  3. I remember, Alan. Didn’t there used to be a fire truck or something parked beside it? It seems like I remember two large vehicles there at one time, the train and something else.

  4. Oh my gosh, I could remember climbing all over that thing! We had contests to see how high we could climb. I used to climb up to the smoke stack, lie down across the top and throw rocks to everyone climbing up to get near me! Our parents would be sitting on the benches nearby, talking with other parents. Unless someone really starting screaming, they paid no attention to us whatsoever. We were expected to handle ourselves appropriately, solve our own problems, mediate our own arguments. Grand training for adulthood.

  5. It hasn’t been too long at all since kids could play on it! I’m 16 and I vividly remember playing on that train. Stupid fences/rules.

  6. The train was the best place ever to play tag. In the mid-sixties there were kids running all over it…along the sides, under the wheels. on top of the engine and in the coal box. There was a lever in the cab, to the right, that you could shove back and forth and it would make a loud noise, somewhat like a chugging train. Sure kids fell off once in a while, but I never saw any serious injuries. There was also a USAF Sabre jet from the Korean War and somewhat later a fire engine. At some point in the late ’70s a tank was added to the collection.

    • Yep, the worst thing I ever saw on the locomotive was a black widow, and we just avoided it and kept having fun. We climbed up the back of that thing and walked along the sides without ever thinking we would fall, although in retrospect I’m surprised no one ever did.

      I think there were two fire trucks at one point, including the sabre and tank. Good times growing up at that park!

  7. Played on it in the 1970s along with an airplane. Used to be a caboose at Park Rd Park (I think). As the parent of a 6 year old I am sad he doesn’t get to play on them the way we did, but at least he can have a limited experience.

  8. Oh man….there was the train, a plane, the spaceship, a fire truck, a tank….FUN! Yes, I remember climbing all over that train…ringing the bell…climbing into the rusty tank things underneath. Lots of sharp, rusty edges and dangerous things to play in and on. Did we care? No. Did we get cut and bleed? Yes….you bled until it stopped bleeding and then you kept playing. Did our mothers baby us and make us stay off that thing? NO, because we weren’t a bunch of pansies back in those days.

  9. I forgot the spaceship…everything else was strippped down but the real thing. The spaceship was a metal construct…and you are right, we took our cuts and scrapes and played on. Girls and boys, black and white all played together in that area between the parking lot and the creek, which was also a great place to play….although I did break my arm trying to jump the creek with my banana bike.

  10. At one point in time you could open the furnace and start fires in it to keep warm. Several years and a few lawsuits later, they sealed it good.


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