If I’m being completely honest, visiting the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke VA, was not even on our itinerary. We literally hadn’t even considered going there during our 3-day trip.
But, being fast hikers and busy bodies, my wife Emma and I had already managed to hike up and down McAfee Knob before noon.
We’d had some tacos at Tuco’s Taqueria, drank a flight of craft beers at the Golden Cactus Brewing Company, and still it wasn’t even 2 PM. So we found ourselves with time to kill.
We passed the VMT on the way to lunch, and it was an easy walk. So we went, not really expecting much, but wanting to make the most of our time in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Before we knew it, we found ourselves acting like wide-eyed children, running from one display to the next.
The historical museum‘s old car collection was amazing. The train car collection outside had us climbing aboard century-old choo-choos.
We climbed aboard an old plane, admired a model train, and dove into the history of transportation in the 20th century.
Normally, such museums are not our cup of single-serving tea, and that’s perhaps what made this experience so sweet. It’s a cool place to bring the kids, and a great place for becoming a kid again!
Read on for our guide to exploring the Virginia Museum of Transportation, including an overview of the exhibits, hours of operation, driving directions, and more.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Roanoke VA
Virginia Museum of Transportation Info
ADDRESS: 303 Norfolk Ave, Roanoke VA
PHONE NUMBER: 540-342-5670
HOURS: Mon-Tue Closed, Wed-Sat 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Sun 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM
ADMISSION: Adult $10; Senior $8; Youth & Student $8; Kids (3-12) $6; Under 3 Free
DIRECTIONS: From Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport, take Aviation Dr and use the right 2 lanes to take the VA-101 W/Hershberger Rd ramp to I-581.
Follow VA-101 W/Hershberger Rd NW for a half-mile, then use the right lane to merge onto I-581 S/US-220 S via the ramp to Downtown.
Follow I-581 S/US-220 S for 2.7 miles, then take exit 4W for US-460 W/Orange Ave. Merge onto US-460 W/Orange Ave NW, then turn left onto Gainsboro Rd NW.
In 0.7 miles, turn right onto Salem Ave SW, then turn right at the 1st cross street onto 3rd St SW. Make a quick left onto Norfolk Ave SW, then the museum will be on your right.
Virginia Museum of Transportation History
There have been several different incarnations of the Virginia Museum of Transportation, dating all the way back to 1963.
It was originally known as the Roanoke Transportation Museum, and was a partnership between the City of Roanoke and the Norfolk & Western Railway. It was located in Wasena Park, next to the Roanoke River.
Though all modes of transportation were represented by this iteration of the Roanoke attraction, trains were the main focus of the museum in those days.
In 1976, the museum became a private non-profit corporation. By 1983, it was known by a much less memorable name– the Official Transportation Museum of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Disaster struck in 1985, when floodwaters nearly destroyed the museum and damaged much of its exhibits (including the N&W J Class Locomotive #611).
But by the next spring, the museum had reopened in the former Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station in Downtown Roanoke. It was at this time it became known as the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
In 2012, for the 50th anniversary of VMT, the City of Roanoke officially bequeathed Locomotives #611 and #1218, to the museum.
In that same year, the Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station earned recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.
The station was built in 1918, retired from railway freight in 1964, and became a museum— the building itself a notable display— in 1986.
At this point, we’ve only talked about two locomotives and an old freight station, and yet the Virginia Museum of Transportation is already steeped in history and ripe with great stories.
Exploring the Virginia Museum of Transportation
It’s still easy today to see that the Virginia Museum began as a railway project, and was primarily focused on the history of trains.
It’s located inside an old train freight station. Right outside, the train tracks still run right past the attraction. And there is a huge model train at the building’s entrance.
The imposing steam engines outside now sit motionless, like immovable monoliths. But, there is much more to see once you venture inside…
A section of the museum’s roof blew off in 2006, and much of their aviation collection was damaged as a result.
However, this gave the VMT a chance to revamp and improve their gallery.
Displays within the aviation wing of the building include explaining the basic principles of flight, a look at early flight history, an exploration of Virginia’s commercial airport designs, and tons of stories about planes, helicopters, and more.
Oh, and there’s also the cabin of an old commercial airliner that you can sit in. For some of us, that’s where the real entertainment begins!
We thought we were duly impressed inside the museum. But when we stepped out the back door into the train yard, we were blown away.
Inside, there were exhibits about the history of trains, including an enlightening story about African-American involvement on the rails.
There was also a cool model train, with over 600 feet of tracks that whipped around a model of the City of Roanoke.
But outside is where you’ll find the real thing. We saw giant locomotives with wheels that were easily as tall as I am.
There were passenger cars to climb into, and there were cabooses. The freight cars feel absolutely massive as you walk next to them.
The stars of the train yard– the Class A locomotive (#1218) and the Class J locomotive (#611)– are both steam-driven, and are the only engines of their type still in existence today.
The Class J #611, which once pulled the 15-car passenger train known as the Powhatan Arrow from Norfolk to Cincinnati, still goes out for excursions from time to time.
The Virginia Museum of Transportation has a great “road” collection as well, with vehicles that go from horse-drawn all the way Back to the Future in a DeLorean.
Walking into the showroom of classic cars feels like taking a trip back to a bygone era in American history that you typically only see in movies.
There’s a steam-driven car, the original Detroit Electric Car from the early 1900s, and all of the popular classics (including Model Ts, Studebakers, Rolls Royces, Cadillacs, and more).
There’s also a fleet of service trucks on exhibit, from freight to firetrucks, as well as a large display telling the history of the Greyhound Bus service.
For fans of classic automobiles, this has the “WOW!” factor of going to a vintage car show at a local drive-in. But of course the epic setting of the massive museum kicks it up even higher.
Some of these cars are over 100 years old, and they have full write-ups to clue you in on the historical significance of what you’re looking at.
Ships & Spaceships
The museum also features a small exhibit about ships that have sailed in the Navy during modern times, many of which were named Roanoke.
There’s another display about a luxury cruise liner. Although it’s less impressive than some of the other collections, this one is more about model ships rather than the real thing.
On the other hand, there is an actual spaceship (well, more like a space rocket) at the museum.
The Jupiter Rocket originally launched in 1956 and carried two primates into space, proving that animals could survive such an experience and return home safely.
It was originally designed to be an intermediate-range ballistic missile for the US Army. But now it’s standing just outside the VMT!
Attractions Near the Virginia Museum of Transportation
Downtown Roanoke is teeming with lots of cultural attractions for visitors to enjoy, with the Virginia Museum of Transportation being one of them.
But within walking distance of the VMT, there are several other museums that offer unique experiences that will prove fun for families and anyone who loves exploring new places and ideas.
Many of them are at Roanoke’s Center in the Square, which is home to the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, the Roanoke Pinball Museum, the Roanoke STARCADE (classic arcade games), the Kids Square Children Museum, and the Science Museum of Western Virginia.
Other Roanoke museums include the History Museum of Western Virginia/O. Winston Link Museum (which focuses on steam train history), as well as the Taubman Museum of Art.
If spending more time inside doesn’t sound ideal, there’s also the Historic Roanoke City Market, with loads of locally-grown produce and locally-produced handicrafts.
There are also several Roanoke breweries with tasting rooms nearby, including Big Lick, Golden Cactus, Three Notch’d, A Few Old Goats, and Deschutes. —by Jonathon Engels, all photos by Emma Gallagher