The Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke draws tens of thousands of rail fans each year. Photo courtesy Virginia Museum of Transportation

The old Norfolk & Western steam-powered locomotive called the 1218 was the pride of Roanoke. Built by N&W’s workers in the city’s sweaty East End shops, the Class A engine pulled tons of coal cars from Roanoke to Norfolk during the 1940s, when it was also drafted into service to ferry newly enlisted soldiers to Army camps during World War II.

The Class A trains are all gone, sent to the scrap heap as modern diesel-powered locomotives passed them and left them behind, literally and figuratively. The 1218 is the only survivor, and today it sits alongside other sleeping steam giants at the Virginia Transportation Museum in Roanoke. The museum has been long recognized as the commonwealth’s official transportation museum by the General Assembly, but that designation means zilch when it comes to state funding for an attraction that has struggled to raise money in recent years.

A bill by Virginia Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) would change that. Edwards wants the transportation museum to become a full-fledged state agency, which would make it eligible to receive state funds. Edwards is filing a separate budget amendment that would appropriate $2 million annually to the museum, which is housed in the nearly 104-year-old, brick-walled former N&W freight station in downtown Roanoke.

That money would more than double the nearly 59-year-old museum’s current annual budget, and would make it possible for the museum to hire more staff, make needed improvements, implement new programs, enhance promotional efforts and bring more tourists to the city, Edwards said.

“I think they’re deserving of being a state agency,” Edwards said in an interview last week. “It will be very good for the valley from a tourism standpoint to upgrade the museum to an agency of the state.”

Edwards ticked off advantages of making the transportation museum a state agency, which would include providing a more reliable source of funds. Becoming an agency would also mean that the currently privately owned, nonprofit museum would become a state entity in the same category of other state museums that receive taxpayer funds, such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond and the Virginia Museum of Natural History. However, those museums receive more state money than Edwards’s budget amendment requests for the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

The museum – which celebrates various facets of transportation that range from vintage cars to small planes to railroad cars to a 67-foot-tall Jupiter class ballistic missile that stands outside the museum –  has struggled financially in the past, even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a brief closure in 2020 and reduced visitation. The museum had three different executive directors in the past four years and currently is led by Deputy Director Mendy Flynn.

A spike in visitation due to the 2015 arrival of the refurbished Class J locomotive known as the 611 – the last of a line of Roanoke-built steam engines – began to ebb starting in 2018 when Amtrak announced the museum could not use tracks for special tourist excursion train trips such as those pulled by the 611.

Edwards, who said he talked to former Secretary of Education Atif Qarni and Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine about the making the museum a state agency several months ago, had hoped outgoing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam would include transportation museum funding in his final budget released last month, but that did not happen.

With Gov. Glenn Youngkin being sworn in as Virginia’s governor on Saturday, and with a new Republican majority arriving in the House of Delegates following the 2020 statewide election, the fate of Edwards’ bill won’t be clear for a while. Several Republican General Assembly members from the Roanoke Valley who were contacted for this story declined to speak about the bill until they were more familiar with its specifics. Edwards thinks the state funding is necessary for the museum’s long-term viability and for bringing more visitors to Roanoke.

“I think there’s a good case to be made and I’m going to make it,” Edwards said.

The desire to become a state agency is yet another milepost in the Virginia Museum of Transportation’s long, winding, often bumpy track.

“It’s an up and down story,” said Bev Fitzpatrick, the transportation museum’s former longtime director who has been associated with and loved the museum since its opening when he was a teenager.

“But it’s a good story.”

(Editor’s note: Fitzpatrick is a member of our community advisory committee but editorial decisions are made separately, as per our policies).

The Road to the Magic City

Roanoke has been a city of railroad ties – pun intended – since its birth in 1882, when it seemed to instantaneously burst from a swampy village called Big Lick. Roanoke’s creation story includes wheeling and dealing by the Big Lick’s few prosperous bankers and builders, a package of land rights and a $10,000 payment to Shenandoah Valley Railroad executives delivered during a midnight ride on horseback by a local farmer named John Moomaw, who transported those sworn promises to a meeting of railroad executives in Lexington.

“Gentlemen, this brings the road to Big Lick!” Col. Upton L. Boyce, a lawyer and one of the railroad’s chief supporters, is alleged to have exclaimed after learning of the Big Lick honchos’ money and land commitments.

So, a line of the Shenandoah Valley railway was built from Hagerstown, Maryland, south through the valley to connect at Big Lick with an existing west-to-east railroad that became known as the Norfolk & Western. This connection transformed the village. A railroad boomtown was born.

Big Lick’s leaders proposed renaming their formerly sleepy, creek-lined hamlet in honor of N&W president Frederick Kimball, a Philadelphia dandy known for fine attire, starched collars and an impressively manicured set of whiskers. Kimball demurred and suggested the town be named for the narrow river and county each of which already bore the name Roanoke.

The Roanoke Machine Works was the first industry to spring from Roanoke’s steam-powered conception. Rough-hewn men arrived by the dozens to work in the shops where massive locomotive engines, rail cars and other railroad equipment would be manufactured, work that continued even into the 21st century. African-American men found decent, though second-tier, jobs with the railroad in the Jim Crow South. Immigrants moved to this “Magic City” to set up shops, clothing stores, diners and saloons to feed, clothe and slake the perpetual thirsts of the brawling men who lived, worked, drank and fought there. Roanoke was a rowdy, brawling town in its early days, with a central district befouled by polluted streams and stinking of mud and livestock, and the railroad was the center of practically all civic, economic and governmental daily life.

In 1882, Norfolk & Western built Hotel Roanoke – still standing today, although in a much-altered form – atop a hill that overlooked the new railway station. For generations, the railroad provided Roanoke families with jobs and security. Roanoke was the Norfolk & Western headquarters for a century, until 1982, when N&W merged with Southern Railway to form Norfolk Southern. The NS headquarters moved to Norfolk, although the railroad maintained a large presence in Roanoke and throughout Southwest Virginia.

Even though N&W was the last major railroad to switch from coal-fired steam power to diesel fuel for its locomotives in the 1950s, Roanoke was already feeling nostalgic about its railroad roots. The city opened the transportation museum in 1963 as an outdoors facility in Wasena Park along the Roanoke River. The exhibits were exposed to the elements and had to be cleaned often, Fitzpatrick said, recalling one of his earliest tasks for the museum.

In 1976, the city cut the museum lose to fend for itself. Reorganizing as a nonprofit, museum backers built a permanent structure that resembled an old-fashioned train station – a resemblance that still fools some Roanokers into thinking the building is a historic depot, but it’s barely older than your nearest Millennial.

In November 1985, a catastrophic flood triggered by the remnants of Hurricane Juan caused the deaths of 10 people in the Roanoke Valley, left behind $225 million worth of property damages and nearly wiped the transportation museum from earth. The raging Roanoke River destroyed exhibits. Antique vehicles were washed away never to be seen again.

Supporters rallied once more by moving the museum, trains and other exhibits to the empty freight station wedged between Norfolk Avenue and the railroad tracks. The long, narrow building, which takes up most of a city block, was built in 1918 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The property provided plenty of space, inside and outdoors, for the museum’s collection of planes, trains and automobiles.

In 1998, the Jupiter missile, known simply as “the Rocket” and which had survived the flood and still stood in Wasena Park, was moved to a plaza next to the building.

Mendy Flynn, deputy director of the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, said that making the museum a state agency would provide funds for needed improvements. Photo by Ralph Berrier.

Back to the Future

Flynn, who assumed the museum’s leadership role after the previous director left last summer, walked down Main Street and talked about changes along the boulevard.

In this case, though, “Main Street” is the name given to the Virginia Museum of Transportation’s front hallway, which is made to look like an early 20th-century version of a railroad town with fake storefronts and a post office.

“It’s been the same since we opened” at this location in 1985, Flynn said of the exhibit.

An influx of state dollars would allow the Virginia Museum of Transportation to modernize, Flynn said. The facility needs better lighting, more interactive exhibits and more modern technology. The boiler that heats the building’s east end is 75 years old, she said. Better bathrooms and a cleaner, greener HVAC filtering system for a COVID-affected world are on the wish list.

The museum currently has eight full-time and two part-time employees, which is better than a year and a half ago when the museum closed during the pandemic and was down to three employees.

Visitation is bouncing back, Flynn said. Some schools are rescheduling field trips, which can be the lifeblood of the museum, especially if children go home and tell their families they want to return to see the trains, Flynn said.

A flip through the museum guestbook planted by the front door revealed that over the holidays the museum received visitors from the Czech Republic, Bahrain, Colombia, not to mention Detroit, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other train-car-plane-loving folks.

“Before COVID, you could always count on getting at least one international visitor every day,” Flynn said.

The locomotives and rail cars are among the museum’s showpieces, especially because visitors can enter inside some of the trains and kids can clamber aboard giant engines. The old steam engines – the 1218 and No. 4 and No. 6 – sit like iron ghosts in the railyard, looking like they could fire up, blow their lonesome whistles and roll down the line at any time.

The antique car exhibit is also popular, with nearly two dozen vehicles that range from a 1914 Model T touring car to a 1981, “Back to the Future”-era, stainless steel, gull-winged DeLorean. The museum has an aviation room, which it would like to expand, displays of model ships and a video exhibit called “From Cotton to Silk” that recounts the stories of Black railroad men.

Perhaps the most popular exhibit, though, was the old restored 611, which now resides in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, where it gets under steam and pulls occasional excursions. There are no plans for its return to Roanoke until railroad tracks are again available in the region.

Fitzpatrick and Matt Harris, the president of the museum’s board of directors, received economic impact data from Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, the Roanoke-based regional tourism bureau, that showed that when the 611 was in Roanoke, more than 22,000 out-of-state visitors came to the museum annually, resulting in $14 million in yearly local economic impact.

That report showed that if the Virginia Museum of Transportation becomes a state agency and receives $2 million from state coffers, the museum could bring in 95,000 out-of-state visitors and create $24 million in economic impact a year.

Edwards said that if the museum comes under the purview of the commonwealth, it might be able to work out deals to use state-owned tracks between Clifton Forge and Doswell for excursions.

“That brings people and tourism dollars to Virginia,” Edwards said.

The museum’s designation as the state’s official transportation museum – which was proclaimed in a 1984 General Assembly resolution – allowed it to receive state funds for many years. Fitzpatrick said that the museum received as much as $750,000 before Gov. Jim Gilmore and the General Assembly cut state funding for arts and cultural organizations that were not state agencies.

Since then, Roanoke attractions such as the transportation museum, Mill Mountain Zoo, the History Museum of Western Virginia and others have scraped for funding.

Flynn said that the designation as the state’s official transportation museum might actually deter some potential donors who think that the museum already receives funds from the commonwealth.

“It’s detrimental to fundraising,” Flynn said, “because people think our budget is taken care of by the state.”

Museums that still qualify for state funding receive millions of dollars annually. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond has an annual budget of $44 million, with about $11 million of that coming from the commonwealth’s general fund. More than half of the Science Museum of Virginia’s $10.8 million budget comes from the general fund, and the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville receives about $3 million from the state.

Fitzpatrick, a former bank vice president and Ferrum College administrator who has worked on many economic development, cultural and public broadcasting projects, served as the transportation museum’s executive director from 2006 until 2017, taking the museum from near-bankruptcy to solvency. He was there when the 611 was refurbished and returned to Roanoke.

He said that plans were in the works for the museum to become a state agency in the early 1990s, but the idea was nixed for reasons that still are not clear to him. He is hopeful that Edwards’ bill eventually makes it to Youngkin’s desk.

“Becoming a state agency means our employees will have benefits,” Fitzpatrick said. “All these basic costs that we are covering ourselves could be paid for by the state. That gives the museum a base with which to operate, then the museum can take money it raises and bring people to Roanoke.”

Ralph Berrier Jr.

Ralph Berrier Jr. is a writer who lives in Roanoke.