Rail Transportation Exhibits

The coming of the railroad to Big Lick in the 1850s changed the little hamlet into the City of Roanoke, today Virginia’s largest city west of Richmond. The Museum’s extensive rail collection and exhibits interpret the rail industry’s rich history and its impact on Roanoke and beyond.

The legendary Norfolk & Western Railway, headquartered in Roanoke, was a true American success story. In its Roanoke Shops, the Norfolk & Western created the world’s most powerful steam locomotives. Only at the Virginia Museum of Transportation can you see and board the last two that still exist: the massive Class A 1218, known as the ‘Mercedes of Steam,’ and the sleek Class J 611, the most advanced passenger steam engine ever built. The Class J 611 is currently offsite.

The Railyard: With over 50 pieces of rolling stock, the Museum exhibits steam and electric locomotives, and the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South. A significant portion of the Museum’s rail collection is located inside the Robert B. Claytor and W. Graham Claytor, Jr. Pavilion. Restoration of rail equipment is ongoing. Visitors also enjoy watching modern trains rumble past the Museum on one of the busiest mainlines in America today.

The Claytor Brothers—Virginians Building America’s Railroad: the story of two brothers, both giants in the railroad industry. Robert B. Claytor was a former president of the Norfolk & Western Railroad and the first CEO of Norfolk Southern Railroad. W. Graham Claytor, Jr. was former president of Southern Railway and Amtrak, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of the Navy under President Carter. Both were born and raised in Roanoke.

From Cotton to Silk: African American Railroad Workers of the Norfolk & Western and Norfolk Southern Railways: highlights the experiences of many African-American workers who worked for N&W and NS Railroad. Their oral histories provide insight into life on the railroad during the years of dynamic change in working conditions and civil rights for people of color.

Big Lick Depot: a composite of rural Norfolk & Western stations. Enter the ticket area and view the telegraph office and the freight room of a 1940s era train depot. The depot also contains the history of the N&W Freight Station.

Norfolk Southern SD-40 Locomotive Cab: climb aboard the actual cab of diesel locomotive #1594, located inside the Museum.

J Cab Theatre: our Rail Gallery mini-theatre. Shows vary.

Virginian Railway—Roanoke’s Other Railroad: incorporated in 1904, the Virginian was an important line from the coalfields of West Virginia through Southside Virginia to the port at Norfolk.

O-Gauge Model Train Layout: four tier model layout depicting major rail sites around the region, including tracks at “kid level.” With multiple trains operating over 600 feet of track, the layout was constructed and is continuously upgraded by the Roanoke Valley O-Gauge Club.

Model Circus Exhibit: Had there not been railroads, it is questionable whether the circus would have become “the greatest show on earth.” The railroad made it possible for circuses to travel swiftly from one city to another, performing seasons of one-day shows. Trains allow all components of a circus—from the animals to the equipment—to travel together. The specially designed railcars evolved during the circus’ golden era, 1872-1947. This model was built by George I. Neal over a period of 15 years. The large tent housing the exhibit is hand-sewn.

Road Transportation Exhibits

Automotive Gallery: Enjoy cars and other vehicles from nearly every decade of the twentieth century, and Virginia license plates dating from 1917.

Harry L. Messimer Bus Collection Exhibit: features artifacts and models from Greyhound, Trailways, and Virginia transit companies.

Our NASCAR Roots: Curtis Turner: Celebrating Curtis “Pops” Turner, “King of the Wild Road” and one of NASCAR’s greatest racecar drivers.

Air and Space Transportation Exhibits

The Wings Over Virginia Aviation Gallery interprets Virginia’s aviation history and aviation technology.

Jupiter Rocket: This type of rocket first launched in 1956. The most significant flight made by a similar Jupiter rocket was made in May 1959 with two primates, Able and Baker, riding in the nose cone. Their survival demonstrated that living creatures could pass through space and safely return.

Other Exhibits and Activity Areas

Maritime Gallery: models of historic sailing ships, plus modern ships called Roanoke.

Hanna Transportation Safety Room: named for Virginia’s father of transportation safety, John T. Hanna, this child-friendly gallery by Magnets USA teaches about the important topic of transportation safety through fun, hands-on activities. Currently closed due to COVID-19.

Main Street: Travel back in time with a view of oversized photographs of the Roanoke Valley from 1900-1920.