Just to the north and east of the State Capitol is a nearly hidden gem of history: the Minnesota Transportation Museum's Jackson Street Roundhouse.

Built 117 years ago by railroad baron James J. Hill, the roundhouse was the hub of Hill's Great Northern Railroad empire, where locomotives were stored and repaired. Now, it's home to the Minnesota Transportation Museum, which bought the roundhouse in 1986 and opened a museum there in 1999. If you close your eyes, you can hear the clanging of tools and the voices of workers of long ago.

Now, you can see volunteers refurbishing a passenger car or engine in one of its bays — or browse exhibits of railroad history. The museum is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Eye On St. Paul, a history and railroad geek, visited with Josh Hoaby, the museum's executive director for the past eight months, to talk about its work to keep alive Minnesota's transportation past.

This interview was edited for length.

Q: This place smells wonderfully old. Tell me about this building.

A: This particular building has been here for over 100 years. It was a functioning roundhouse in the early 1900s. After World War II, it became a bulk mail facility for the post office. They filled in all the tracks, and it was just concrete everywhere. And then in the early '90s, it was bought and then the tracks were put back in.

Q: Tell me about the transportation museum.

A: We have two arms. We have the museum here, which is an 80,000 square foot facility. Bay D is the main part of the museum, but we have other bays where we work on diesel locomotives and the passenger cars and do all the maintenance. We're one of the only roundhouses in the country that's functional and open to the public.

Q: What is a roundhouse?

A: We have a turntable out back so we can pull passenger cars or locomotives onto that, spin it around and put them into the bay where we do the work. For the other part of our operation, we run a passenger train from Osceola, Wis., to Marine on St. Croix, and that generates the bulk of our revenue. And we did get some state funding this year to bring the Justus Ramsey House onto our property. We should be breaking ground shortly.

Q: What is the connection of the Justus Ramsey House to transportation?

A: Pullman porters, as well as other African American railway workers, lived in that house. We're lucky that we have a spot for it and that it ties in so well to what we're doing.

Q: Why are people so fascinated with trains?

A: I think it's a mix of the nostalgia and just how massive, physically, trains are. I don't think people realize until they get to walk through them, or walk next to them, just how big these things are.

Q: Amtrak just added the Borealis line for a second daily train to Chicago. Will train travel become more than it is right now?

A: I hope so. It's a really great way for larger groups or families to travel together and kind of have that road trip experience without having to take your own car. Our hope is eventually to get some of our cars on the Borealis as well — some of our Presidential Coaches and some of our nicer first-class coaches. A group or a part of your family could rent out the entire car and it would hook on to the Borealis and go to Chicago and back.

Q: How do you get a new generation interested in trains?

A: We're attempting to create an environment where the next generation can get their hands on the trains themselves and learn to love them as past generations have. We're working to create projects and volunteer opportunities that people can come and experience trains for the first time. But the big thing is the train ride that we do in the summer and fall. That really hooks people.

Q: When is the train operating and what does it cost?

A: Train rides run Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day to MEA weekend, so a little before Halloween. Train rides are anywhere from $25 to $80, depending on what kind of ride you want to do. We have general excursions. We also have wine- and beer-tasting trains. We have pizza trains. We have ice cream trains. We're doing a Christmas in July train, where Santa is going to be on the train.

Q: How did you get involved in this?

A: I didn't consider myself a massive train guy until I got here. I was brought in to help grow the museum and the train ride. I was executive director at a church. I was really good at working with volunteers, teally good at raising funds and really good at helping everybody see that moving in the same direction is beneficial.

Q: What exhibits do visitors gush about?

A: The 328 steam engine. It used to run in Stillwater and it's in our museum now. We have a postal car that used to run mail on the railroad. It's actually on our fleet in Osceola right now. You can walk through it while the train's running and it's got all these old letters. That's my favorite car.