Thursday, January 12, 2012

Planes, trains, boats, and automobiles. The St. Louis Transportation Museum is rich with fascinating history

Here's a switch. I recently attended a place with a cool car museum, and yet, even I will admit, the best displays at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation weren't necessarily the cars.  As a car-nut, it pains me to say this, but the vintage train collection is one of the most impressive things you'll ever see.  Still, no matter whether your interests include planes, trains, boats, or automobiles, there was something for everyone in this comprehensive gathering of transportation history.

Don't get me wrong--the car museum portion of the tour wasn't anything to sneeze at. There were a couple of extremely special highway cruisers just inside the front doors of the Earl C. Lindburg Automobile Center. The biggest star, literally, was the famous Bobby Darin Dream Car. It took seven years to build designer Andy Di Dia's creation, and when it was finally finished in 1960, it cost more than $93,000 at the time. It was originally built with a Cadillac engine, but was later converted to Ford power when Ford took it on the show circuit. Singer Bobby Darin eventually purchased it, and it starred in some movies and made a few public appearances. He donated the celebrated machine to the museum in 1970.  It also made an appearance at the Art of the Car Concours in Kansas City in 2010.

They also have one of the 55 original Turbine cars built by Chrysler in 1963. This is the third one of these I've seen, as the Henry Ford Museum and the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Michigan both have similar bronze Turbine cars on display. Jay Leno also famously owns one. By the way, 46 of them were destroyed after Chrysler finished their testing on them. The turbine engines could burn all kinds of other fuels other than gasoline, but they were a bit loud and unusual. And if you think it looks a little like a '61 T-Bird, that's no coincidence. Designer Elwood Engle worked for Ford before joining Chrysler.

The car museum also had a neat facade of the Coral Court Motel, which was taken off of the original structure. The motel, built in 1941, was a popular destination on Route 66. The yellow '65 Corvette convertible parked out front was a nice touch.  It seemed like a cooler place to stay than the Courtyard by Marriott that we found on Priceline.

The real focus of this museum was on the trains, though. I'm not a train expert by any means, but there were several there that sparked my interest. My favorite was the Aerotrain #3. It kind of reminds you of something that would have been in a General Motors Motorama Show, which makes sense, because it was developed by GM's car designers in 1955. The museum's literature says it was essentially a widened bus body, and rode horribly at high speed. The Rock Island Line used a couple of them from 1958 to 1965, then donated this train and two matching passenger cars in 1966. It might not have been any good, but it sure is neat looking!

Another significant General Motors train engine was the Electro-Motive #103, which was the first successful diesel-electric locomotive. It was built in 1939, and was a major factor in the elimination of steam locomotives. It was declared a "National Engineering Landmark" in 1982.  The Southern Railway donated the GM Electro-Motive to the museum in 1960.

Another GM Electro-Motive, the #9908 Silver Charger, has been the subject of many famous paintings and photographs over the years. The gleaming streamlined beauty was put into service in 1939, running passengers between St. Louis and Kansas City. Even when it was past its prime for passenger service, it was still used to run mail until 1965. A year later, it was donated to the museum.

Some people really think the steam trains are the pinnacle of romance and nostalgia, and The St. Louis Auto Museum had possibly the best collection I've ever seen. One of the most impressive had to be the #4006 Union Pacific "Big Boy." And really, calling it big is an understatement. This monster weighed 1.2-million pounds, and was used to haul heavy freight through the Rockies. It was the world's largest successful steam locomotive, and ran from 1941 through the 1950s. Surprisingly, the much smaller Electro-Motive #103 could out-pull it, but who cares? Seeing this thing in person is just awesome.

I also thought the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad #173 was interesting. It was built all the way back in 1873, and had a cab that looked like a house mounted high on top of the boiler. It was meant to pull freight, but looks kind of scary to me. It was in another collection at Purdue University in the early 1900s, and donated to the St. Louis Museum in 1951.

In addition to all the locomotives, there was a great sampling of Pullman cars, cabooses, car-haulers, tanker cars, baggage cars, and many more. One of the Pullman coaches, known as the Aleutian, was used in the 1995 movie Truman. It was used by various railroad bigwigs from 1923 until it was donated to the museum in 1970.

Not into cars or trains? The collection also featured a 1933 H.T. Pott tugboat that operated out of Kansas City, and a 1943 Douglas Aircraft C-47A Transport (the military version of a DC-3) that was used during the Invasion of Normandy during World War II.

You could easily spend hours at this museum, and the history of these things is out of this world. I barely scratched the surface of what there was to see and learn in this article. It's just one of those places that you need to experience on your own.

Photos almost don't to this collection justice, but I took some all the same, and you an see them in the slideshow below.


  1. Whitewalls on a train?!? :)
    Very cool - thanx for posting. Next trip to see a Cardinals game will probably be extended one day to check this out.

  2. very cool, craig. thanks as always for sharing the pics. that dream car is wild.

    for those who like trains, there's a pretty cool train musuem in sacremento should your travels take you out that way.

  3. Craig:
    EXCELLENT JOB with the slideshow and the commentary.
    I remember the AEROTRAIN (never saw one "live", though)...great find!

    Another well done for this post.

    Happy Motoring.

  4. Thats a really cool train. Any more info on these?