Adventure Us: Virginia Museum of Transportation

While there are myriads of opportunities for adventure and fun in Roanoke and the surrounding mountains, we’ve found there are some familiar, comfortable places we return to again and again. One of those is the Virginia Museum of Transportation, or, as our kids call it, the “train museum”.

We’re far from the only family for whom the Virginia Museum of Transportation is an old standby: as the state’s official transportation museum, occupying an old N&W train station in the heart of the city that has long been the region’s transportation hub, the museum is known far and wide for its collection of historic locomotives. Perhaps the most famous is the legendary Norfolk & Western Class J 611 steam locomotive, built in Roanoke in 1950, twice restored, and still in service (up until the pandemic) as an excursion engine. This mighty 100-foot, 400-ton, 6000-horsepower machine is a symbol of the gold age of steam railways – and of Roanoke, whose fabrication shops were in that era the envy of the industry, churning out some of the most powerful, massive, reliable steam locomotives ever built.

The age of steam locomotives is long gone, but you can still stand beside the mighty beasts, and even climb up into their cabs, in the huge railyard of the Transportation Museum. (At the moment, the 611 is at the North Carolina Transportation Museum, but several other impressive N&W steam locomotives are at the Roanoke museum.) As if to remind visitors still further of Roanoke’s deep ties to the railroad, Norfolk Southern trains often pass by on the live tracks just next to the museum yard. And there is plenty to see besides the trains. Inside the museum, one of the great attractions is the sprawling model railroad exhibit, covering 600 feet of track and providing space for dozens of kids and parents to watch. There are also many more artifacts and exhibits highlighting the history of the railroads in Roanoke. And while it specializes in rail, the museum’s diverse attractions also include an automobile collection and a section devoted to air travel. Many Virginia transportation achievements – past and present – are displayed, including one of the first ever autonomous vehicles (developed at Virginia Tech) and the Carilion Life-Guard rescue helicopter. Finally, our kids would call me remiss if I didn’t mention the Jupiter rocket, which stands on the sidewalk behind the museum. This rocket, vintage 1958, is notable for achievements as diverse as being the launch vehicle for the first US satellite in orbit, and being a picnic shelter for two small Roanoke boys!

Our family has been members of the Museum off and on for years, and our kids still love going back. If your family feels the same, investigate the annual museum membership – a great deal for those who are frequent visitors.

Since part of the museum is outdoors, check the weather before you go. (The railyard is covered, so you won’t get wet, just cold.) The Museum is operating on modified hours due to Covid – it is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Name: 303 Norfolk Avenue SW Roanoke, VA 24016

Time from Roanoke: <15 minutes

Activity Options: All things that move – real trains, model trains, cars, ships, planes, rockets; many interactive exhibits

Nearby Food: Everything that downtown Roanoke has to offer – within walking distance

Nearby Attractions: Museums, parks, and sights of downtown Roanoke 

More Adventure Us

Cristy Carr

Cristy and her family keep busy writing, tutoring, homeschooling, homesteading, and adventuring in the beautiful Appalachian mountains.
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