Monday, April 28, 2008

If Wishes Were (Iron) Horses

What is on your museum wish list? If funds and feasibility were not issues, how would you improve VMT?

You hear about various will be’s, could be’s and should be’s. A locomotive cab with interactive controls. Resurrection of the Virginia Scrap Iron ghost locos. A rail excursion—full size, not the converted Zoo Choo.

One of my dreams is to get the Y6 N&W steam locomotive moved back here from the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. It would complete the “big three” of classic late steam types built in Roanoke. Yeah, I understand the chances of that steam dream coming to pass. Nevertheless ….

Would you like to see more representation of other railroads besides the N&W? Which roads and what exhibits?

Do you wish for more interactive exhibits for your children, grandchildren or the young ones you teach? What would you add to or change about the museum for them?

What would you like to see done differently with non-railroad transportation?

Of the railroad equipment that needs significant restoration, that looks like it belongs as much in a scrap yard as a rail yard, which pieces would you most like to see brought back to pristine condition? The Lake Pearl sleeper? The Pennsy GG-1 electric loco? The Jawn Henry? Just kidding about that last one.

The museum’s exhibits have been criticized as static and stale. How would you breathe life and freshness into them?

Obviously funds and feasibility are issues. However, knowing what you’re thinking helps us have a better museum. And some of those wish list items that seem far-fetched now may lie closer to our grasp than we think.

Today my daughter and I hiked along the Roanoke River from Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital to Winchester St. There at Wasena Park I told her stories of the flood of ’85, including the devastation of VMT. Who then could have seen beyond the mud and muck to envision where and what the museum is today.

Out of the current “storm” can also emerge a stronger, better transportation showplace. Share your dreams with us and then help us make some of those dreams a reality.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Taxes, Trains and Transportation Tours

I have been away too long, involved with other writing projects. Of course, this is also tax season. I am happy to report that my train #1040 left the station on time. I hope yours did too.

The museum’s quarterly newsletter is in the mail, sporting a new name and look. Tell us what you think of the name, Revolutions, and the newsletter. If you don’t receive it and want to, call 342-5670 or e-mail

This issue features Bev Fitzpatrick’s new column, View from the Cab, news of recent and upcoming events, and photos of the Advance Auto Gallery and the A 1218 in the snow. You will also find a picture of the “lost locomotives” on the Virginia Scrap Iron and Metal property.

Speaking of the auto gallery, its grand opening is May 1 from 5-7:30 pm. That exhibit also includes From Mud to Mobility, a review of the past 100 years of VDOT.

Just days before that event, on April 26, is a rail tour. Sponsored jointly by VMT, the N&W Historical Society, the Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and the O. Winston Link Museum, the tour will focus on little known rails from this area’s past. They include the Valley Railroad, the narrow gauge link from the Ore Mines in South Roanoke and the N&W lines near Shaffers Crossing. The tour will be offered twice, at 9 am and again at 1 pm, departing from the Link Museum. For details, please call VMT at 342-5670.

Drop by BB&T this month or next. You can do some banking and get a taste of “VMT on location.” The museum will have displays in several branches including the J 611 tapestry, brochures, images from our collection, gift shop items and membership info. Bank employees will take membership orders and gift shop purchases. BB&T locations featured in April are Towers, Tanglewood, Oak Grove and Main. Consider it a new kind of branch line railroading. Shucks, BB&T even sounds like the name of a railroad.

Finally, thank you for sharing some of your valuable time by reading the blog. I also appreciate your comments, including those that disagree with me or criticize VMT. Your views are important to us and we learn from them. If you ever have comments about the blog that you would rather share privately, you can e-mail me at

Happy trails to you this weekend.

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Little Engine that Will

At a time when many people are attempting to put new things on top of Mill Mountain, the Museum of Transportation has brought some- thing back down the mountain.

The Zoo Choo will become the new Choo. The little train that could ... and did, transporting children and adults around Mill Mountain Zoo for more than half a century, will soon roll on the mini-main line of the museum rail yard.

Painted in the burnt tuscan red of the N&W Railroad, the current Zoo Choo includes a gas-powered Model G-16 miniature train engine, two passenger cars and an observation car. The train's relocation is a joint effort of VMT and the Jaycees, who will split revenue from its operation.

The new train will help VMT meet two of its goals for improving its operations: more interactive exhibits and more features geared to children. It should be fascinating to see the tiny train snaking its way among the unmoving giants of yesterday’s locomotives and rolling stock while modern trains rumble along the tracks a pebble’s throw away.

A number of details still need to be worked out. One of them is trackage rights. Even a diminuitive train needs room to turn, and one end of the rail yard does not have quite enough of it. Norfolk Southern and the museum are working together to resolve the problem, which could involve NS granting a few feet of right-of-way for the track. Sounds like real railroading, doesn’t it?

And as with any new rail line, there is the matter of a name. What should we call the transplanted train? Zoo Choo no longer fits. Do you have suggestions? Then please let us know.

Meanwhile we will continue to dream of the day when VMT can offer short excursions on a lifesized train. Start thinking—we will need a name for that one also.

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Friday, April 4, 2008

Rails that Divide, Bridges that Connect

Railroad tracks unite.

And they divide.

The rails that spread like kudzu across the vast west following the War Between the States enabled the U.S. to grow faster and farther than anyone would have thought possible a couple decades earlier. The pounding of a golden spike at Promontory, Utah in 1869 was both a literal and symbolic uniting of America. Tracks continued to multiply in the last half of the 19th century, creating arteries and veins that provided the life blood of the towns and industries connected to them.

The railroad also divided. In its earlier years, the division was primarily cultural and political. Many Americans feared and loathed these danger-carrying, noise-screaming, smoke-spewing beasts. Few viewed trains through the rosy lenses of nostalgia as so many of us do today. The strange, newfangled trains and their owners, seen as greedy and rapacious devourers of land and resources, were usually detested.

The rails divided in other ways. They bisected towns and prairies, in many cases dictating where and how commerce would take root and people would settle. Often unintentionally, rail and crosstie became a steel and wood line of demarcation separating prosperity from failure and status from ignominy.

As a child, I remember hearing often that phrase, “the other side,” or “the wrong side” of the tracks,” meaning the poorer, seedier and more dangerous section of town. Sometimes I wondered why the less desirable neighborhoods were always the “other” side from where anyone I knew lived. Most of the time I just accepted it as an immutable fact of life.

Sadly, that other side was usually disproportionately African-American. Even after the end of slavery, blacks in both north and south were robbed of equal housing and job opportunities. In Roanoke and in many other places, minorities lived on the “wrong side” of the tracks.

That’s one more reason all Roanokers should rejoice in the re-opening of the aptly renamed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Bridge. It spans rows of tracks and links the Gaineboro area with downtown literally and symbolically.

Does anyone feel more pleasure in that connecting walkway than those whose reminiscences are the heart of the Museum exhibit, African American Heritage on the Norfolk and Western Railway, 1930-1970? When I watch the video and read the signs in that display, I am equally impressed by two things: the level of injustice these N&W workers endured and the courage and dignity with which they served.

I am also struck by how different today’s landscape looks. In recent decades, railroad corporations such as Norfolk Southern have gone to great effort to lay new tracks of opportunity and fairness. For that we should salute them, Dr. King and railroaders like the ones depicted here.

Railroad tracks can divide. They can also unite, especially when people are willing to build bridges.

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