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Transportation museums: Going, going, gone

By Steve Crecelius, courtesy Visit Denver

Once, hundreds of suburban St. Louis kids gaped in awe as a 1941 Union Pacific Big Boy, the largest steam engine ever made, rattled windows as it roared by. More than a few teenagers in western Pennsylvania had their first kiss crammed in the back seat of a 1965 Ford Mustang at a drive-in movie.

Many bank group members will remember the 1970s, when they dressed in their Sunday finest to step on an airplane. It was an exciting time for transportation when cars, trains and planes were glamorous.

Revisiting historic vehicles at transportation museums around the country is both poignant and entertaining.

Museum of Transportation
St. Louis
Recognized as one of the largest and best collections of transportation vehicles in the world by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis also boasts one of the most complete collections of American rail power.

“Fifty percent of our 70-plus locomotives are one-of-a-kind or sole survivors,” said Therese Brady, services supervisor for the museum.

The Union Pacific Big Boy is a major crowd-pleaser, and the FT 103, a diesel electric locomotive, was the first of its kind. “They called it ‘the diesel that did it,’” said Brady.

There are also three passenger cars from the 1920s: a private car, a dining car and a Pullman sleeper.

In addition to railroad history, the museum also has a collection of streetcars, horse-drawn vehicles, buses, cars, trucks, aircraft and a riverboat.


Forney Museum of Transportation

“Anything on wheels” is the motto at the Forney Museum, where trains, cars, buggies, bikes, motorcycles and trolleys are some of the modes of transport on display.

“Our central sight is the Big Boy locomotive built in during World War II to haul freight over the Continental Divide from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Ogden, Utah. It’s 540 tons and 130 feet long and is hinged in the middle so it can go around corners,” said David Barth, assistant director.

Automobiles on display include Amelia Earhart’s 1920 Kissel Goldbug, which she nicknamed the Yellow Peril. “She drove this bright yellow speedster like she drove a plane,” Barth said.

The Goldbug includes a wax likeness of Earhart at the wheel thanks to a wax museum that once existed inside this venue.

“We also have the only Nyberg left in the world. Built in 1907, it was discovered walled up behind a brick wall where it had sat for 60 years. It’s in pristine condition,” said Barth.

The transportation collection also includes 60 motorcycles, 19 of which are the classic Indian cycles. Groups will see bicycles that were constructed without pedals so that riders could simply move their feet on the ground to get around.

Wax figures and mannequins surround many of the antique transports and give visitors the feeling they are visiting a time gone by. “When I’m here at night and turn out the lights, it’s spooky,” said Barth.


North Carolina Transportation Museum

Spencer, North Carolina
The North Carolina Transportation Museum is located on a 57-acre former steam engine repair facility for the Southern Railroad that has been deemed a State Historic Site.

“We showcase a true infrastructure of a railyard. And we not only offer antique diesel locomotives and train rides, but old automobiles, airplanes and wagons — a full history of transportation,” said Mark Brown, public information officer.

The railcar exhibit in the roundhouse includes the Loretto, once owned by Charles Schwab, and the Doris, a private luxurious car once owned by James Duke. “In terms of transportation, they are comparable to private jets you’d see today,” said Brown.

A wide variety of automobiles include Model T’s, Model A’s and other classic cars from the last 100 years. A recently added 1929 Double Model A firetruck, totally open to the elements, offers a glimpse into how firefighters of yesteryear braved the elements to do their job.

Brown added that a replica of the Wright brothers’ 1903 Wright Flyer is also on display. “This is the same one that they had in Kitty Hawk. We’re so lucky to have it.”


Minnesota Transportation Museum

St. Paul, Minnesota
Known as the Jackson Street Roundhouse, the former steam engine maintenance facility that houses the Minnesota Transportation Museum was built in 1907 for the Great Northern Railway.

Dozens of train cars and engines are in different stages of restoration, and groups can observe skilled laborers at work throughout the property. The museum is also home to one of the nation’s last surviving operational turntables.

“We also have caboose rides available,” said Pat Kytola, railroad operations director.

Also part of the museum’s collection are vintage buses from the 1950s and several picture and china displays that focus on the heyday of the railroad.

The Jackson Street Roundhouse is just one part of the entire Minnesota Transportation Museum network. The museum has a variety of venues located throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“I would suggest that groups with train buffs visit all locations for different experiences and enjoy lunch or dinner on a scenic ride,” Kytola said.


Owls Head Transportation Museum
Owls Head, Maine
The founders of the Owls Head Transportation Museum, located on scenic Penobscot Bay, had a serious interest in old planes and cars. “Thanks to them, we still offer biplane and Model T rides,” said Park Morrison, the museum’s public relations director.

Most of the 25 planes, 75 automobiles and 12 motorcycles, all antiques, are operable and are demonstrated on and around a grass airstrip.

“Our aircraft collection contains replicas and originals representing the first century of flight, from Cayley’s unmanned glider in 1804 to the legendary Curtiss Jenny of the barnstorming era,” said Morrison.

“Our collection of automobiles spans the late 19th century and early 20th century and includes a refurbished 1908 Stanley K Semi-Racer, a 1914 Rolls Royce limousine and a 1935 Stout Scarab, called the world’s first minivan — one of only six ever made. Each has its own story.”

Groups will discover electric cars from the early 20th century and an energy room where demonstration engines show the connection between technology 100 years ago and today.
New in 2011 will be an exhibit that showcases small autos, from 1920s MGs to the microcars of today.


Virginia Museum of Transportation
Roanoke, Virginia
Home of the Norfolk and Western Railway, Roanoke was a renowned manufacturing center for locomotives designed to maneuver over the area’s terrain.

“They continued to manufacture them long after everyone else, and the technology was considered the most advanced in this country,” said Fran Ferguson, director of development for the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

Two classes of cars stand out: Class A was a freight locomotive that transported nearly every product during World War II, and Class J was a passenger train.

“Both cars bring powerful memories. Here, we have the only Class A 1218 and Class J 611 that remain in existence. People come from all over the world to see them,” said Ferguson.

The museum focuses primarily on Virginia’s rail history. Ferguson noted that the museum’s location adjacent to the active mainline of the Norfolk Southern offers an interesting perspective.

“While guests admire a steam locomotive built in 1897, one that resembles ‘the little engine that could,’ they also witness railcars zipping by hauling cargo from Asia on its way to Europe,” she said.

The museum also includes an automotive gallery with cars from every decade through the 1970s. Model trains are also on display.

Ferguson added that the O. Winston Link Museum, a photography museum located in an adjacent train station, offers an iconic pictorial history of the Norfolk and Western railway and the last days of steam operation.