Best Railroad Museums

5016 views
43 replies
1 rating 2 rating 3 rating 4 rating 5 rating
  • Member since
    May 2019
  • 963 posts
Best Railroad Museums
Posted by Lithonia Operator on Friday, October 25, 2019 9:48 PM

I was wondering if you folks could give me your opinions on what are the top ten railroad museums in the US.

(I am not counting tourist railroads as musuems, btw.)

I have been fortunate enough to visit: The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, the B&O Museum, Spencer Shops, The O.Winston Link Museum, and Steamtown. I am thinking all of them might be in a Top Ten.

My impression is that the Illinois Railroad Museum and the California State Railroad Museum would be on such a list. I hope to get to them. If I was going to add three more, which should they be?

(I have also been to the Virginia Transportation Museum in Roanoke, a nice smaller one in Wilmington NC, and a modest RR museum just outside of Atlanta. And a few even more modest ones in small towns, etc. We found a great little museum in a tiny SC town, and one had to call the founder/curator to get a visit; he gave us a very nice private tour.)

I'd love to see what people put on their lists. If you only feel like listing, say, six, then just list six. If you wish to comment on any, plus or minus, I'd be interested.

I am going to try to get to several of the best museums I have not yet visited. It would appear that the Illinois one is very impressive, and I'd say that would currently be at the top of my Want-to-Visit list. I am also curious about the Center for Railroad Photography.

 

  • Member since
    September 2003
  • 11,107 posts
Posted by Overmod on Friday, October 25, 2019 10:31 PM

Why is NMOT in St. Louis absent from this list?

IRM is world-class; if you had to have just one 'number one' by most definitions of the term, I think they would qualify.

There's probably a parallel for trolley/traction museums: Branford, Seashore, Rockhill, and whatever that Electric City operation opposite Steamtown is are possibilities.  

  • Member since
    May 2019
  • 963 posts
Posted by Lithonia Operator on Saturday, October 26, 2019 12:02 AM

I did not mention NMOT because I was not aware of it. But I'll conclude that you consider it one of the top museums.

From what I can tell by looking on the web, yes, it would appear that Illinois Railroad Museum might be in a class of its own. I think I saw that they have 27 steam locomotives! And something like 400 pieces total. Wow.

  • Member since
    January 2001
  • From: Atlanta
  • 11,649 posts
Posted by oltmannd on Saturday, October 26, 2019 8:30 AM

Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg and Seashore Trolley Museum in Kinnebunkport ME come to mind.

-Don (Random stuff, mostly about trains - what else? http://blerfblog.blogspot.com/

  • Member since
    January 2019
  • From: Henrico, VA
  • 4,134 posts
Posted by Flintlock76 on Saturday, October 26, 2019 9:29 AM

You've done better than I have LO!  From my own visits I'd say the top two on the East Coast are the B&O Museum in Baltimore and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg.  I haven't been to Spencer Shops in North Carolina in 25+ years so I shouldn't comment on it at this time.  I did enjoy it when I was there.

  • Member since
    May 2019
  • 963 posts
Posted by Lithonia Operator on Saturday, October 26, 2019 11:41 AM

I urge anyone who has not been to the Winston Link Museum in Roanoke to make sure to go. It is fantastic. To me, Link's work is in a league of its own.

  • Member since
    January 2002
  • 211 posts
Posted by bedell on Saturday, October 26, 2019 1:39 PM

I have to cast a vote for the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.

  • Member since
    January 2019
  • From: Henrico, VA
  • 4,134 posts
Posted by Flintlock76 on Saturday, October 26, 2019 5:17 PM

bedell

I have to cast a vote for the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.

 

Oh good Lord yes, how could I forget that one!  I've been there, although it's been a while.

Best railroad bookshop on site I've ever seen!

  • Member since
    May 2019
  • 963 posts
Posted by Lithonia Operator on Saturday, October 26, 2019 5:20 PM

I will put Colorado on my wish list.

  • Member since
    September 2010
  • From: Parma Heights Ohio
  • 3,381 posts
Posted by Penny Trains on Saturday, October 26, 2019 6:22 PM

I haven't been there yet myself, but there is of course the newly minted Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum in Sugarcreek, Ohio.  http://www.ageofsteamroundhouse.com/

Nearby is the Warther Carvings museum https://thewarthermuseum.com/

Big Smile  I'm Cuckoo For Choo Choo Stuffs!  Big Smile

  • Member since
    December 2001
  • From: NW Wisconsin
  • 3,749 posts
Posted by beaulieu on Wednesday, October 30, 2019 8:38 PM

I'll nominate the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth Minnesota.

LSRMorg

  • Member since
    October 2014
  • 409 posts
Posted by Gramp on Thursday, October 31, 2019 5:42 AM

https://nationalrrmuseum.org/

National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, WI. Another really fine museum. Almost a stone’s throw from Lambeau Field. (Maybe a little more).

  • Member since
    May 2019
  • 963 posts
Posted by Lithonia Operator on Thursday, October 31, 2019 3:05 PM

Thanks for all the suggestions. Keep 'em coming!

  • Member since
    May 2017
  • 305 posts
Posted by xboxtravis7992 on Saturday, November 2, 2019 11:00 AM

Lithonia Operator

I was wondering if you folks could give me your opinions on what are the top ten railroad museums in the US.

(I am not counting tourist railroads as musuems, btw.)

The tricky thing with not counting tourist railroads is many of them are just as good at historic preservation as the museums are. I have had a blast on several preserved railroads opperating as tourist lines like the Virginia and Truckee... or on lines that blur the defition of tourist rail vs. museum such as the Nevada Northern and Sumpter Valley. Sumpter for example has several opperating pieces of original area equipment, but has no traditional museum display space so to speak off. The NN has a museum component to it... but most of the 'museum' doubles as operating shops and storage for the tourist railroad portion of the operation so I can't tell you where the museum ends and the tourist stuff starts since its all one in the same. Although I have yet to visit the Cumbres and Toltec, it falls in a similar vein of the NN where so much of what is used to operate tourist trains is historic in nature its really hard to say if its strictly a museum or a tourist operation itself.

So if we were to go though strictly off the definition of museums a few western operations come to mind though. Both Nevada State Railroad Museum locations are excellent in Carson City and Boulder City. IRM as previously mentioned has a huge collection, and definately deserves the attention it gets. California State Railroad Museum has a proffesional polish and presentation to it that is makes it stand out. The Oregon Rail Heritage Center is sort of new to the museum sphere and not much in the way of exhibits... but you can't go wrong with SP 4449! Colorado Railroad Museum, Western Railway Museum, Orange Empire, etc. all jump into mind too. Back east, there's also the Railroader's Memorial Museum in Altoona that hasn't been brought up yet, or the State Railroad Museum in Pennsylvania. 

Of course, I really like the small town museums myself. The Tooele Valley Museum and Historic Park is my hometown museum, and it definately lacks the polish of a bigger budgeted operation, but sometimes I feel like you can learn a lot in the small city operated places that you can't always see in the bigger museums. 

  • Member since
    May 2019
  • 963 posts
Posted by Lithonia Operator on Saturday, November 2, 2019 11:44 AM

Thanks, Travis.

Yes, you make a very good point about the tourist roads. That was a pretty arbitrary stricture on my part.

For sure, if something is historic, outside, and operates, I shouldn't hold that against it, right? Smile

  • Member since
    September 2003
  • 11,107 posts
Posted by Overmod on Saturday, November 2, 2019 12:00 PM

The thing is that your original post involved major railroad museums.  Most tourist operations, even when they provide good historical content, are far smaller and likely more constrained in their collection scope than the 'majors'.

On the other hand, they may be a firsthand source of information on particular niche interests that none of the large museum operations has.

A point that's brought up fairly often on RyPN, where it has specific technical interest, is that many tourist railroads that operate as businesses have a very different view toward 'historic fabric' in their cars and locomotives than a purely preservation-based (or historical & technical organization) might.  So, for example, you might differentiate between a road that rebuilds its steam locomotives to be cheap and reliable to run from one that takes pains to maintain everything at a 'period' level ... or retires engines when some part of their historic construction threatens to give out, rather than put in a 'new' replacement for, say, a historic-fabric crownsheet and staybolting.

  • Member since
    January 2019
  • From: Henrico, VA
  • 4,134 posts
Posted by Flintlock76 on Saturday, November 2, 2019 6:15 PM

I guess the moral of the story is not every rail museum will run trains, but tourist railroads might  have a museum attached, either large or small.

So, don't pass up either if you get the chance to visit. 

  • Member since
    May 2019
  • 963 posts
Posted by Lithonia Operator on Sunday, November 3, 2019 12:33 PM

I tend to enjoy museums much more than the tourist roads, and I guess that's the main reason I specified museums initially.

But, also, (and as Overmod touches on above), many tourist roads are not really that "historical," in my opinion. And I'm not saying they should be, either. But it seems to me that their primary mission is to provide passenger rides on routes that historically once had passenger service; but they are not necessarly using equipment that has any real connection to that route. (For example, I doubt the Erie ever ran a BL-2 on what is now the Stourbridge Line.)

To me, lines like Strasburg or Nevada Northern are in a different league than lots of other roads. As Travis noted above.

There's a question I have about museums in general. Take the Railway Museum of Pennsyvania's beautiful Pennsy E7 #5901. When active, that engine actually was PRR #5901. But now let's assume an imaginary museum in, say, Maine, where I live. And let's say that museum acquires a Southern F7 and repaints it to "be" Boston and Maine. Doesn't that sort of thing happen a lot? And when it does, will most museums, right there on the display placard, note the actual lineage of the piece?

I don't know, but it seem like this "re-branding" happens more on tourist roads than at museums. Am I correct on this?

And what is the prevailing sentiment among preservationists regarding such re-branding? Do most consider this kosher? And if there is no prevailing sentiment, is this kind of a hot-button issue in the preservation community?

Please understand that I am not down on such repainting. Almost any way that folks preserve old railroad equipment works for me! My hat's off to the folks doing this hard, important work.

  • Member since
    January 2019
  • From: Henrico, VA
  • 4,134 posts
Posted by Flintlock76 on Sunday, November 3, 2019 2:18 PM

I don't think there's any real consensus on "re-branding" as you put it so well.  

My attitude is the owners have the right to do with the equipment whatever they want to.  If a rail museum in New England can't get a real Boston and Maine F7, but they aquire one from somewhere else and repaint it as a B&M locomotive, so what?  It's their  locomotive, they raised and spent the money to get it and pay for the upkeep.  They have every right to repaint it, in my humble opinion.

Others may disagree.  That's fine.  They can hunt down and buy their own.  

  • Member since
    November 2012
  • 2 posts
Posted by PRR5406 on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 7:14 AM
Not in the USA, but just over our northern border, ExpoRail near Montreal is nearly perfect, as is the collection in Ottawa. I live in Maine, and the Canadian are like family to us, so there's my rationale.
  • Member since
    February 2015
  • 3 posts
Posted by JOE LAMBERT on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 8:52 AM

Just visited IRM two weeks ago and was amazed at the amount of equipment there. They have plenty of work to keep them busy for a looooong time in the restoration sheds. A good sign of a healthy organization is the facility additions that are being built now as well. If I had the time, I would become a volunteer and contribute to their cause. Maybe someday. 

  • Member since
    February 2019
  • 9 posts
Posted by Garth1943 on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 10:02 AM

The California State Railway Museum is definitely first class. I haven't been to all of the ones you include on your list, so I won't try to rate them. Although you choose to confine your search to the USA, Exporail, just outside of Montreal and less than an hour's drive  from the border with New York State, is one of the finest railway museums in the world. And no, you don't have to speak or understand French to go there; it is completely bilingual.

  • Member since
    September 2014
  • 7 posts
Posted by BRENDAN BROSNAN on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 12:52 PM

oltmannd

Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg and Seashore Trolley Museum in Kinnebunkport ME come to mind.

 

Another vote for Kinnebunkport

  • Member since
    September 2014
  • 7 posts
Posted by BRENDAN BROSNAN on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 12:56 PM

My problem with NMOT (visited about 10 yrs ago) was everything was on top of each other. Not enough room to walk between the rows and the weeds and briers were not helpful at all. Yes they have some rare equipment.

 

  • Member since
    September 2014
  • 7 posts
Posted by BRENDAN BROSNAN on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 12:59 PM

Tennesse Valley RR Museum in Chattanooga, TN home of 4501 and 630 running steam every day durring the summer season and longer excursions on the weekends in the fall.  

[/quote]

Lithonia Operator

Thanks for all the suggestions. Keep 'em coming!

 

  • Member since
    September 2014
  • 19 posts
Posted by RAY HEROLD on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 4:15 PM

The Illinois Rwy In Union, Ill. is certainly a top 10. I also enjoyed Mid Continant in N. Freedom Wisc, as well as the National Rwy Museum in Green Bay, Wisc. Also on my list would be the Western Pacific RR Museum in Portola, Ca. as well as the one in Duluth, Minn.

  • Member since
    December 2017
  • From: I've been everywhere, man
  • 2,400 posts
Posted by SD70Dude on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 5:52 PM

I think that the Illinois Railway Museum is truly in a class of its own.  Operating steam, diesel and electric locomotives, a big collection of interurbans, streetcars and other transit equipment (including trolleybuses), and a rail line long enough to be worthy of running it all on.  Not to mention all the indoor storage space they have built. 

Others I would put in my top 10 (it is difficult to list them in a particular order)"

California State Railroad Museum

Virginia Museum of Transportation

National Museum of Transportation (St. Louis)

Nevada Northern

Age of Steam

Niles Canyon Railway

Monticello Railway Museum

Steamtown

B&O Railway Museum

Greetings from Alberta

-an Articulate Malcontent

  • Member since
    December 2017
  • From: I've been everywhere, man
  • 2,400 posts
Posted by SD70Dude on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 5:59 PM

I'll also make a top 5 list for Canada, if life ever takes you north of the border:

Canadian Railway Museum/ExpoRail (Delson, QC, in suburban Montreal)

West Coast Railway Association (Squamish, BC)

Bytown Railway Society (Ottawa, ON, beside the Canada Science and Technology Museum)

Heritage Park (Calgary, AB)

Alberta Railway Museum (Edmonton, AB.  Shameless plug for my own organization)

Greetings from Alberta

-an Articulate Malcontent

  • Member since
    August 2002
  • From: MP 42.1 Creston Sub
  • 38 posts
Posted by mbv9415 on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 11:25 PM

Pennsylvania trolley Museum in Washington, PA. Huge collection, lots of trackage, rides behind numerous car types. Friendly and knowledgable staff.

Boone and Scenic in Boone, IA. Really nice museum building; not cluttered. Rides behind steam, diesels and trolleys/interurban cars on city trackage.   Plus the Kate Shelley bridge(s) just to the south. 

Lake Shore Railway Museum in North East, PA. wish the building was open the day I was there. Lots of equipment and ability to watch NS and CSX mainlines. 

 

Duluth was alright, ditto NYC museum in Elkhart, IN. 

 

Peace through superior firepower
  • Member since
    May 2019
  • 963 posts
Posted by Lithonia Operator on Wednesday, November 6, 2019 8:57 AM

Thanks for all the tips, folks.  Yes

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy