Virginia Museum of Transportation Announces Next Step in Strategic Growth Plan

In 1958 and 1959, the railroad ran several farewell to steam excursions, with 611 pulling the last one in October 1959. While many of the locomotives went to the scrap lines, 611 was more fortunate, in part due to its superb condition after 1956 derailment and subsequent repair, and also in no small part to the efforts of O. Winston Link, the famous photographer, whose offer to purchase 611 himself, rather than see it scrapped, practically embarrassed N&W into donating it for posterity.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation, Inc. has announced the hiring of Richmond-based Riggs Ward to study and recommend actions and plans to develop the museum’s next major project.

The exhibit will be called “The Roanoke Story” and tells the story of how a small crossroads named Big Lick, at what is now the intersection of Williamson Road and Orange Avenue, became Roanoke after the Shenandoah Valley Railroad decided to connect to the old Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad.

It all started with the midnight ride of Mr. John C. Moomaw with a large amount of funds raised by the citizens of Big Lick to entice the new railroad to Big Lick.

The new exhibit will tell the great story of how Roanoke developed with emphasis on how it became America’s Richest Little Railroad, built some of the finest steam locomotives in the world and because of its capable leadership became one of the largest players in North American Railroading.

The development of the “Magic City” that grew from 500 people to 5,000 people in just a few years was just the tip of the iceberg in the long partnership with the Norfolk & Western Railway that made Roanoke one of America’s greatest Railroad cities.

“This is the largest professionally designed exhibit ever planned at the museum,” Virginia Museum of Transportation Executive Director Bev Fitzpatrick said. “This has been in the strategic plan for a long time, and as we’ve completed other projects this undertaking is the next major step in continuing to be a world class heritage museum.”

The exhibit will chronicle the powerful Norfolk & Western Railway influence on the growth of Roanoke and its impact on Railroading in the United States.

“The museum hopes Roanoke’s leaders along with others across the state will invest in this new exhibit that celebrates Virginia’s Transportation Heritage. As a museum that represents the entire commonwealth of Virginia we would like to see this be an exhibit sponsored by people from all over Virginia,” Fitzpatrick said. “While we are noted as one of America’s greatest Rail Museums, we are much more than that with our Auto and Aviation Galleries and the Commonwealth Coach and Trolley Museum. The VMT is flourishing with construction ready to start on our “Big Three Building” for our Norfolk & Western locomotives, the Roanoke Story and plans for a new bus and truck section in years to come. But, telling ‘The Roanoke Story’ is essential to our mission and purpose and is the next best step for the VMT.”

The Virginia Museum of Transportation was founded as the Roanoke Transportation Museum in 1962 and was located in Wasena Park. The Flood of 1985 destroyed much of the museum and was the impetus to move to its current home in the former Norfolk & Western freight depot in downtown Roanoke in 1986, rebranding itself as the Virginia Museum of Transportation, Inc.

In the 31 plus years since, the museum’s rail gallery layout and exhibits have been updated as funds were available, but largely remained the same. As the Commonwealth’s Official Transportation Museum, the new design will focus on the Roanoke Valley’s long and significant transportation history as it is reflected throughout the Commonwealth, specifically the role it played in a state-wide railroad culture, which includes a worldwide reputation for innovation and excellence.

With Roanoke’s roots as a railroad town, the museum plans to feature stories of those who helped design, built and run the Norfolk and Western Railway. Their accomplishments include the big three steam locomotives often noted as the best in the world who were the folks that made America’s richest little railroad so successful and who build the world’s finest locomotives. The exhibit will explain how the leadership at the Norfolk and Western Railway started America’s rail mergers movement that has forever changed the map of American railroading.

“As museums and museum philosophies change and grow, so must our exhibits,” Virginia Museum of Transportation Curator and Historian Deena Sasser said. “Working together with Riggs Ward, we will help evolve the museum and become more sophisticated storytellers of the history of the transportation in the Commonwealth.”

With Riggs Ward as the museum’s strategic partner, the goal is to utilize the Museum’s Master Interpretive Plan as the basis for impactful exhibition and programming opportunities, audience engagement strategies, economic impact analysis, operation efficiency, space planning and infrastructure improvements.

New exhibits might include hands on design-a-locomotive interactive experience, an interactive relief map presenting original routes of transportation and an animated simulation on coal mining’s impact on communities.

Regarded as the most noted Norfolk and Western heritage museum in the world, the exhibit will showcase unique artifacts, and create exhibits that conform to state regulated learning programs. By strategically deploying new technologies with a wink toward nostalgia, the newly renovated VMT hopes to build Roanoke’s pride while attracting visitors from around the country to explore America’s roots in transportation.

Riggs Ward has worked on many projects involving local civic groups and a variety of different stakeholders throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia and across the region including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Atlanta History Center, University of Virginia Rotunda Visitors Center and the Library of Congress.

“The VMT project, in particular, evokes fond memories I have of the region developed since my childhood. My mother’s family is from Salem and my wife’s family is from Franklin County; I’ve been coming to Roanoke my entire life,” Riggs Ward Principal Brent Ward said. “The Roanoke Valley has always been a cherished part of my life and I cannot think of anything I would like to do more than to help improve the region’s visibility and economic outlook.”

Following the success of the ‘Fire Up 611’ campaign that returned the Norfolk & Western Class J 611 steam passenger locomotive to operational service, the Museum believes it can raise the funds needed to revive and reintroduce the public to Roanoke’s legacy as one of America’s top transportation resources.

The funding for this initial planning phase came from a private donor who wishes to remain anonymous. The Virginia Museum of Transportation Board of Directors believes the project can be a reality and will work with staff to develop and identify funding sources for future execution. The project is slated for execution following the construction of the museum’s new building to house the Norfolk & Western’s Big Three Locomotives on the west end of the Rail Yard.

“We are very pleased to have Riggs Ward on board with us as we move to create a very important exhibit that will portray our local rail history,” Virginia Museum of Transportation Deputy Director Don Moser said. “Riggs Ward’s reputation precedes them, and we are looking forward to working with them to produce a world-class exhibit for our visitors.”