Railroads hold a special place in American folklore, inspiring folk tales like the legend of John Henry as well as folk songs like “The Wabash Cannonball,” “The Rock Island Line,” and “The Midnight Special.”
Now comes news that a trove of railroad memorabilia will soon become publicly available to researchers, students and teachers, and railroad enthusiasts. Last month, freight rail operator Norfolk Southern Corp. announced it would donate the complete collection of historical documents and archives from its predecessor company Norfolk and Western Railway to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC) in Richmond.
The collection dates to the 1840s and includes thousands of photographs and glass plate negatives, as well as portraits, business records, annual reports, bridge drawings, blueprints for rail station and yard construction, publicity materials (advertisements, posters, and radio program scripts), and what the company calls “3D artifacts.”
The Norfolk and Western Railway originated in 1838 as a nine-mile single-track line connecting Petersburg and City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia. In the years that followed, more than 200 railroad companies were built, merged, reorganized, and consolidated until the company merged with Southern Railway in 1982 to create Norfolk Southern. Since then, Norfolk Southern has grown to become one of the nation’s largest freight railroads.
The museum’s new acquisitions won’t just be stuffed in dusty cabinets. Instead, the collection is going high-tech, thanks to a $750,000 donation from Norfolk Southern that will allow the VMHC to digitize, catalog, and preserve the collection.