Monday, December 31, 2007

Freedom's Eve

On this day, New Year's Eve, in 1862, millions of African-American slaves in the United States held their breath. The next day, the first day of 1863, would be so much more than a new year for them. They'd had new years before, but all of those just turned out to be the old year all over again. 1863 would be different. When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, it did not immediately go into effect. It would not do so until January 1st, New Year's Day, of 1863. And so, on New Year's Eve, millions of slaves held their breath. The piece of paper is not what would free them. What would free them is the commitment by the United States that the piece of paper represented. Now, some 145 years after what came to be known as "Freedom's Eve," civil rights remains a huge issue. These are wounds that do not heal quickly. But this is not why I write this.

Of all the railroads on display at your Virginia Museum of Transportation, one very important one remains absent -- the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was at its peak in the decades leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation and Freedom's Eve, and it was a model of cellular organization. Station Masters, the benevolent men and women who would hide escaped slaves in their homes, knew very little of the full route of the railroad. Instead, they would know of nearby "stations" and "conductors" to help guide the "passengers" to freedom. And while some may have actually traveled on an actual railroad, most went by foot in the dead of night -- a railroad of walkers.

There are plenty of books and resources on the Underground Railroad that can go into far greater detail with much greater reliability than this blog can or will attempt to do. For now, we spend this anniversary of Freedom's Eve in quiet and meditative remembrance of 2007, and with fierce and unyielding optimism, we look forward to 2008.

Happy New Year to you all.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Monte Car-lo

Box office records would indicate that not many of you went to see the 2003 film, "Looney Tunes: Back in Action." Critical reviews would indicate that you made a good decision to see something else. Nonetheless, a piece of memorabilia from that movie now resides at your Virginia Museum of Transportation.

In the film, Nascar driver, Jeff Gordon, makes a cameo, driving his trademark #24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. After the abuse it took in the film (being hijacked by none other than Yosemite Sam), it wasn't exactly fit for the race track. Another detriment to its racing condition would be that it lacks an engine. So, Warner Brothers shelved the car.

Four years and several lawyers later, the car afficionados on the VMT Board of Directors managed to bring the car here to Roanoke.

At first thought, a car used in a movie bears only the slightest relevance to the Official Transportation Museum of the Commonwealth of Virginia (I just thought that looked better with capital letters). It rolls on tires and carries people (well, a person -- there's no passenger seat), so it is transportation, in the academic sense, but what about relevance to Virginia?

Well, according to Wikipedia, Mr. Gordon was born in California, raised in Indiana, and currently lives in North Carolina. No Virginian ties there. However, he has raced numerous times at Virginia's major raceways, winning some and losing some.

Though Nascar's formal development owes much to Florida and North Carolina, its roots go back to Prohibition, when bootleggers would modify their own cars (stock cars in the truest sense of the term) to help them evade police. Bootlegging was prominent throughout Appalachia, most certainly including Virginia. As the sport grew from the tradition, its strongholds in the south cemented.

Auto racing represents an important element of Virginia's transportation heritage. It was the efforts of racers to modify their vehicles that drove innovation in auto technology. As automobiles developed, so too did the roads need to develop to support them. This is the principle theme of our Auto Gallery, so despite its Hollywood glitz, our new car has a legitimate story to tell.

Let's just hope its story gets better reviews than the movie in which it starred.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Report Card

When I was a kid, one of my least favorite days was when report cards would be sent home. I was a pretty good student, I'll concede, but I had one of those mothers who liked to nitpick. I once brought home a report card that had five As and one A-minus (I was a nerd). Her first question was, "Couldn't manage another A?"

I say this because we have a report card day coming up. The report from the Museum Management Consultants* is in our hands for final review before it's released into the wild. Because it is still in the review stages, I'm prohibited from speaking about its contents specifically. So we'll speak generally, and all will be clear when the report is made public.

The good news is that there is nothing in the report we didn't already know. We know we're short-staffed, we know we're inadequately funded, and we know that the personnel we have are not true museum professionals with curatorial, archival, or exhibition experience. We know that our building is too large and that our collection is too broad. We'll tell anyone that asks. Shucks, we might just put it on our blog.

The rest of the good news is that the MMC had the wisdom to compare us to museums with similar collections, not museums in a similar region as we had initially feared. Comparing us to the Science Museum of Western Virginia or the Mill Mountain Zoo would be the proverbial apples and oranges comparison, which is rarely more substantial than, "Well, they're both kind of round." Our comparison museums included the North Carolina Transportation Museum, the B&O Railroad Museum, the National Transport Museum in St. Louis, and a few others.

The bad news is that the results, while honest and forthcoming, are not favorable. No sugar-coating bushes or beating around dances here. They represent the good-faith recommendations of a business with more than twenty years of doing exactly this, and doing it with good results. What they presented is a well-rounded summation of what people in the biz call, "screwing stuff up."

When the report becomes public, one of two things will happen: One, the public will take little or no interest in it at all, as is the typical response to news involving the museum; or Two, there will be clamor for changes in leadership, organization, this, that, the other, etc.. Between the Scylla and Charybdis of apathy and antipathy is the best path for us.

All that said, we're not bringing home five As and an A-minus. Sorry, Mom.

*This report was the subject of our blog post that had to be taken down.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Und hat ein bl├╝mlein bracht

This week, we happily welcomed back Mr. Wick Moorman, Chairman of Norfolk Southern. Mr. Moorman once again toured the museum and had what our Executive Director called, "the most productive meeting with a Norfolk Southern official this museum has ever had."

While we can't give out any details of the meeting, I will give a hint of one of the topics discussed. We may be on our way to making a trade for a certain locomotive that's been away from home for far too long.

That's all I can give for now.

Meanwhile, the Zoo Choo is finally here. It made the trip down from the mountain uneventfully and sits on our back dock to be protected from the elements. The next step is to lay the track for the train, a project we hope to have underway early in the new year. With a little luck and a lot of work, we'll have it operational for the tourist season next year.

#1218 is coming along in the way of its exhibitions. It will open for the Christmas Eve sneak preview, though most of its signage won't be in place until the New Year's Eve sneak preview. We hope to have all of its major controls labeled, a light installed in the cab (for better visibility), and a narrative detailing the contributions of the engine and the other Class As during World War II.

Lastly, we have opened our President One and Safety Instruction Cars for public viewing. The President One car was the personal car of the President of the Illinois Terminal Railroad. While its restoration is ongoing, we have opened the living room, a bedroom, and the dining room for display. The kitchen and other bedrooms are not currently open as they still need some work, but there's still plenty to see. The Safety Instruction Car features a 48-seat movie theater (for showing safety films) and an apartment in which the full-time safety instructor would live while on the rails. We have some of the old safety films in our archives, and we hope to have a few running in the theater next year.

We'll be closed on Christmas Day and on New Year's Day, but we are otherwise open for all comers. Come by and see us during your holiday week.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sneak preview

Given today's date, it seems appropriate to announce the opening of our #1218 to the public. We've had #1218 at the museum since 2004, but it has not been open to the public in that time. The reasons for this are myriad, ranging from safety considerations to laziness. But, we've overcome these challenges, and you can now step into the cab of Norfolk & Western's Class A, #1218. Almost.

We'll be opening the exhibit permanently starting on January 2nd of 2008, but we'll host two sneak preview events before that. One will be on Christmas Eve, the other on New Year's Eve, each running from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. We'll have a reduced general admission rate of $5.00 per person. Also, we'll be giving away a free copy of our book, From Here to There to the first 1,000 visitors at each preview.

Ok, so that's the press release stuff. Now for the good part (see; you knew you read this blog for a reason).

We're working on several elements of this exhibit. The first is a diagram showing which knobs and levers served which functions in the operation of the locomotive. We'll also include a narrative in the cab detailing the significant role the Class A locomotives played during World War II. We hope to have lights in the firebox to simulate a fire, and in time, we would like to add an interactive element demonstrating how the articulated aspects of the locomotive worked. How much of this will be done by the sneak previews, we're not sure, but we hope to at least have the light and narrative in place for the grand opening on January 2nd.

We're very excited about this, and we're hoping to create a very different kind of experience for our visitors from that they receive inside #611.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Ding, Ding, Ding Went the Bell

DC Transit #1470 has not moved under its own power in more than forty years. Given that it drew its power from overhead wires and a trolley pole, this isn't terribly surprising. In 1985, the Roanoke River overflowed its banks in what the area still infamously remembers as "The Flood of `85."* Directly alongside that river was the Virginia Museum of Transportation, located then in Roanoke's Wasena Park. #1470 was likely completely submerged. The water level rose as high as the rafters of the old museum building, and the trolley certainly wasn't that tall, so we're making the inference. We don't know for sure. In any event, the wheels were underwater for days. Now we skip ahead 22 years as we try to move DC Transit #1470 again.

The idea was simple -- we would pick up the street car, pull out the rails, and set it back down on the other set of rails underneath. If we had actually done this, we might have been alright. However, with the Zoo Choo desperate for space given its rather commodious turning radius, we opted to move #1470 a little more to the east to give the train some clearance. This was the rub.

We're estimating the weight of our street car to be in the neighborhood of 30,000 pounds. While that was within the lifting capacity of Allegheny Construction's big crane, it was not within its capacity due to the angle by which the crane was forced to operate (there are some messy physics involved that I won't bother going into). So the new plan was to lift the front end of the trolley with the crane, and pull it forward using a large tow truck (services generously donated by the Commonwealth Coach & Trolley Museum) until it had cleared its upper rails and the front wheels could be set down on the lower rails. This part went [relatively] smoothly. Now we get to the ugly part.

Next we would lift the rear end of the trolley, and drag the whole thing forward some more with the wrecker until those rear wheels cleared the upper rails to be set down level with the rest of the car. Remember how I told you that those wheels had been underwater for days? Well, it seems they never got cleaned up, and the wheels that carried that street car from Alexandria to Glen Echo every day for years refused to let it move the first foot forward today.

Enter: The Tow Truck

By this point, our one-hour moving project had already ballooned up to the three-hour mark. It was decided that a fair lead could be rigged (since the tow truck couldn't maneuver in the tight space to be directly in front of the trolley) to the side of the tow truck, beneath the crane, in front of the street car. The resultant system of pulleys more closely resembled a Rube Goldberg device than a wench.

Picture this: the tow truck sits to the right and about a car length forward of the trolley. The line comes from the tow truck, immediately out to the left (toward the street car), through a pulley fastened by a chain to the rails themselves, to the front of #1470. We created a Tetris piece out of steel cable. Now to engage the wench, pull the trolley forward, and set its rear-end down.

At this time, I'd like to let you know about a new exhibit at your Virginia Museum of Transportation. This museum is now home to the only combination narrow gauge-standard gauge rails on earth.

Rather than pull the trolley forward, the force of the wench and the resistance of the street car joined to bend the steel rails in toward each other, pigeon-toe style. Time for another new plan.

The distance the car needed to move forward was only about three feet. It had been pulled the rest of the way earlier with its front wheels in the air. The daredevils with Allegheny Construction lowered the rear end of the trolley onto blocks they'd put on the lower rails, forward of the upper rails. Then it was just a matter of shoving the upper rail segment out of the way, pulling the blocks out from under the street car, and lowering it finally down to the earth.

And so it was. After five hours, our street car had moved twenty feet forward, and two feet straight down. In the process, we rendered useless a pair of steel rails, dug massive holes in our playground from the tow truck's path, and cost Allegheny Construction about twenty man-hours in donated time and services.

Why settle for the easy way, when the very hard, destructive way will do?

*Every small community refers to natural disasters in this way. It's quaint, which is another way of saying that no one understands it, but it seems charming, anyway.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley...

Today, the Metro connects Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia. As do highways, commuter rail, and even a few bike trails. But once upon a time, neither area was as grown up, and street cars connected the two.

Street railways were once a common feature in metropolitan areas. Few maintain them, but they used to be all over. As the interstate system really took hold and people embraced the freedom of driving wherever they wanted without having to wait on a street car, or walking to the nearest street car line, those trolley cars became fewer and fewer. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

D.C.'s street car system began way back in 1862 using horse-drawn street cars. They ran very short routes, mainly between Federal buildings and nearby residential areas.

About a quarter-century later, Richmond, Virginia installed the nation's first electric street railway, and emulating Virginia's capitol, our nation's capitol followed suit. There were several small such railways operating for a while, until they all consolidated (to settle the very confusing interchanges, differences in fares, etc.) as the Washington Traction Company in 1895. Nearly another quarter-century of prosperity and growth followed.

Then came the buses, the death knell for electric street cars. One last-ditch consolidation maneuver in 1933 created the Capital Transit Company. The company enjoyed some success, mainly from being the only game in town apart from buses, until a worker's strike in 1955 put commuters on foot for nearly seven weeks in the heat of the summer. A new owner took over, but he had a different idea for the company.

The name changed, for starters, to DC Transit. Most significantly, though, the transit changed. Street cars yielded to buses and DC's street railways were no more by1962.

Most of the street cars were sold or scrapped, though some escaped to museums, such as DC Transit 1470 which rests at your Virginia Museum of Transportation. (Come on, I know you were wondering if I was going to make a point.)

#1470 has been part of the museum's collection for years. As a piece of rolling stock, it's best displayed on rails. It sat on rails, indeed, which sat on ties, it's true. But instead of leveled ground, the ties sat on top of the ground for a long time. When the museum built up its outdoor pavilion, it had to do something with this street car on rails on ties on the ground. Because there was only rail or pavement, and needing pavement more than rails, the street car on rails on ties was placed on... other rails. While we're waiting to get some digital pictures up, here's a rough sketch.

Streetcar
Rails
Ties
Rails
Ground

Now, this is silly. Rails on ties on more rails is silly. We thought so, our patrons have thought so, but there it is.

Well, our friends with Allegheny Construction have a big crane, and it just so happens that their big crane can lift our street car. The idea is that we'd lift the street car, drag the upper rails out of the way, then set the street car down on the lower rails. Seems simple enough work, probably less than an hour's worth.

Five hours later, our street car was stuck with its front wheels on the lower rails, and its tail in the air, held up by a crane. For the rest of this story, you'll have to check back later this week.

How's that for a teaser?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Carol of the Bells

I couldn't help myself. I read over some of the old posts here, and noticed a trend -- we complain about money a lot. I'm not saying there isn't a good reason for that, nor that there isn't some interesting stuff there. Just an observation, that's all. So, in our continuing effort for consistency, here's another rant post about money.

Hark! how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say "Throw cares away."

Last year, we sold a locomotive (a sentence I never thought I'd use before I started working here). By the calendar, that happened this year, but as far as our finances are concerned, that was last year. Anyway, if not for that sale, we'd have ended up in the red. This year doesn't look a lot better, and we're all out of locomotives to sell.

Christmas is here, bringing good cheer to young and old, meek and the bold.

The situation isn't terrible, as we've still got some chunks of local money and other donations coming in, but the outlook is not good. Citizens of Virginia are well-aware of the budget crunch facing the Commonwealth, and the murmurs in Richmond say that there will be no state funding for non-state agencies. As a tax-payer, I can't personally fault this sentiment, but working for a struggling non-profit, it's a dark cloud. It's also worth noting that your Virginia Museum of Transportation is the Official Transportation Museum of the Commonwealth. That designation isn't just fluff -- it came directly from the legislature in Richmond years ago. While the title is nice, it does not make us an agency of the state. Ergo, when goes the money, so goes the show.

Ding, dong, ding, dong -- that is their song, with joyful ring, all caroling.

The City of Roanoke hasn't been much help, either. We expected and accepted that long ago, so this is no great surprise. Our funding from the city is at an all-time low, but the city has its own budget needs, too.

So what does that mean for the 44-year old caretaker of Virginia's transportation heritage?

One seems to hear words of good cheer from everywhere, filling the air.

It means we've got three possible futures.

In the first, we receive a substantial donation from a major player, to be continued in perpetuity. The B&O Railroad Museum receives substantial funding from CSX. They get a lot of donations, too, of course, but this is an example of what a large corporate partner can do. Last year, Norfolk Southern very generously contributed tens of thousands of dollars to us. This year, they're again doing so with the caveat that we now match their donation. However, in neither case was the money enough to get us through a year. We're no less grateful; merely honest.

In the second, we become a state agency. This is probably the most ideal course for us. State funding ensures our continuation, and provides resources beyond our current means. This would resurrect our restoration, curatorial, and education departments -- three neglected and presently inactive areas of our operation forced into dormancy by a lack of funding. It would also help us cross the hurdle we've been stuck on for a while, and get out of the rather regional focus we have in our collection and exhibits. At its last meeting, the VMT Board of Directors voted to pursue this course, but their consent is not the only cog in this wheel.

In the third, we continue as we are. The only end game for this particular circumstance will be the closing of our doors. We could get by a few more years, but if we made it to a 50th birthday, it would surprise everyone involved.

O, how they pound, raising the sound, o'er hill and dale, telling their tale.

Virginia's Explore Park just shut down, largely for the same reasons. The brand new Art Museum of Western Virginia has not yet opened, now costing nearly double its initial $40.5 million price tag. The History Museum of Western Virginia resembles a ghost town. Despite some [reasonably] successful events and increased attendance, your VMT in the same trenches.

Gaily they ring, while people sing songs of good cheer. Christmas is here!

During the holidays, everyone has a hand out, asking for toys, clothes, money, food, time, prayers, and company. There's never enough to go around, this is true. What we don't seem to realize is that this holds true during the rest of the year, too. We just don't notice it unless we stand outside in a Santa suit and ring a bell.

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas!
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas!

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