Historic Preservation for the Greater Good

Posted by David Lester
on Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Last week brought the sad news that Norfolk & Western Y6a 2156 would be returning to the National Transportation Museum in St. Louis sometime in the near future. The locomotive has been on loan to the Virginia Museum of Transportation for the past five years, bringing together the “big three” locomotives of the Roanoke Shops again after decades. 

While this decision is very disappointing, it is not unfair, underhanded, or disingenuous in any way. The NTM agreed to loan the Y to the Virginia Museum of Transportation for five years, and the five-year term has expired. After several months of congenial negotiations between the NTM and the VMT, the two organizations could not reach an agreement around extending the terms of the lease or VMT purchasing the 2156 outright. So, the plan is for the Y to head back to St. Louis at some point in the future. The pandemic has prevented the finalization of plans to this point.

The NTM and the VMT are both fine organizations with strong collections. The NTM has an eclectic collection of significant locomotives and other transportation equipment, while the VMT has a strong collection, but it is not as geographically diverse as that of the NTM. Both museums, however, are dedicated to the preservation of transportation history.

With all of this said, the prospect of the return of the Y to St. Louis leaves a hole in my heart. The legacy of the Norfolk & Western’s excellent steam power, culminating in Classes A, J and Y, is one of the richest stories in rail history. And, Norfolk, despite the closure of the locomotive shops where the engines were built, will always be the home of the N&W and these engines.

Despite everyone’s good intentions, if the Y returns to St. Louis, it will simply be one of the many pieces of equipment on display there, with little or nothing to distinguish it as something special. After a couple of hours of looking at all of the locomotives on display at the NTM, one could easily come across the Y and say, “that looks like that other engine we saw a few minutes ago.” It will be a nice display, but will have little or no context for historical interpretation. This is not to be critical of the NTM at all – it’s a simple fact.

If the Y were to stay at the VMT, the historical interpretation of this engine would be completely different. Standing next to its distinguished sisters, Class A 1218 and Class J 611, the 2156 would be part of a legacy that pays homage to the wonderful work done by the N&W shops and the spectacular performances these engines provided the region while pulling freight and passengers in their service territory. 

To add to the impact of Roanoke’s locomotive history, the O. Winston Link Museum is not far from the VMT, where the work of this legendary photographer, who photographed the big three at night and during the day, is on display with a marvelous collection of photographs and artifacts.

I believe the NMT can do more for the preservation of railroad history by working out a deal with the VMT than they can by bringing the Y back to St. Louis. The Y belongs in Roanoke, standing next to the A and J in order to provide the highest quality museum display of N&W railroad and locomotive history.

I strongly urge the leaders of the NTM to consider how the greater good of historic preservation will be served best with the Y in Roanoke. There, it will be part of a long legacy of achievement. At NTM, unfortunately, the Y will be just one more locomotive to look at.









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