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Happy Birthday VMT

Executive Director Beverly Fitzpatrick and Mayor Bowers share a laugh while singing.

by Valerie Garner

Virginia Museum Of Transportation Receives Two Big Gifts

The gift of two steam engines from Roanoke City with the support of Norfolk Southern is a historical gem for Roanoke said Tom Jones, the museum’s board member and past president. “It’s an eventful day, it truly is.”

At Monday’s council meeting the city’s 2004 lease of the two steam engines to the Virginia Museum of Transportation was canceled making way for the donation of the engines. The J-611 and A-1218 steam engines have now become 100 percent owned by the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

The Class A-1218 locomotive was known for its durability and power. It routinely pulled troop trains at 70 miles-per-hour. The Roanoke shops built 43 of these engines in the 1940s. It is the only 1218 that has escaped the scrap yard.

The sleek Class J-611 could pull a 15-car passenger train at 110 mph across level terrain. Only 14 of these engines were built. It is the only one in existence today.

“What a wonderful birthday present,” said Beverly Fitzpatrick, Jr., the museum’s executive director. The museum’s 50th birthday was marked by a celebration hosting volunteers, board members, city council and visitors who dined on cakes that were emblazoned with “611” and “1218.”  Mayor Bowers said, “The 611 and 1218 say a lot about our citizens, our legacy and our future.” The Mayor was first in line for a piece of the 1218 cake asking for the one with the most icing.

The museum’s charter began as the Roanoke Transportation Museum in 1962. All the assets owned by the city had been transferred to the renamed Virginia Transportation Museum in 1983 when it was located in the Wasena neighborhood. The 1985 flood destroyed the museum and most of its collection. Norfolk Southern Corporation loaned the 1918 freight station to the museum eventually donating it.

Later all funding from the Commonwealth was eliminated for non-state agencies and the museum had to lay off most of its staff. No state funds flow to the museum.

In 2006 media reported that the museum was in crisis. Executive Director Fitzpatrick faced unpaid bills and a roof ripped off by a storm. With no volunteers and not many visitors the VMT was on the brink of total collapse.

The past five years have been in the black, said Fitzpatrick. “Visualize someone hanging on the side of a sinking ship or clinging to the side of a cliff with fingernails – that’s about how much we are in the black,” he laughed.

To paint a diesel costs $20,000 and to totally refurbish one would be at least $500,000. “To refurbish the Class J-611 and the Class A-1218 you’re talking at least a million dollars,” said Fitzpatrick.

Even the ones under the canopy take a fair amount of money to keep clean. The locomotives get dust carried by wind that swirls in the railroad yard. If left without protection painting would be even more frequent and expensive.

There were only 12,000 visitors to the museum in 2006 compared to 35,000 in 2011 – an 182 percent increase. With increased memberships, volunteers donating time and sales increasing at the museum’s store things are looking up at least as far as its sustainability. Though progress has been made on the interior or the building, a lot of work still needs to be done on the outdated exhibits. So far Norfolk Southern’s offer of one million dollars in matching funds with donors and the city has gone unmet.

The board of directors has plans for an ambitious capital campaign this fall that they hope will enhance the exhibits and offer more excitement to visitors. A five million-dollar goal seems ambitious but for a museum that was all but written off only five years ago anything is possible.

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