Photo by Amy Friedenberger, The Roanoke Times.
Since opening to the public in 2000, the Commonwealth Coach & Trolley Museum in Roanoke, Virginia, has educated visitors about the history, use and efficiency of public transit, while also providing transportation services for area non-profits and public events. As The Roanoke Times reports, a two-alarm fire that began in the early morning hours of November 1 has destroyed the museum’s home on 18th Street S.W., and with it, nearly half its collection of coaches.
Founded in 1999, when the Virginia Museum of Transportation deaccessioned its fleet of transit coaches, the museum gained 501(c)(3) status the following year. Since then, the facility that describes itself as “The official transit museum of the Commonwealth of Virginia” has acquired a number of historic vehicles, including a 1917 Roanoke Trolley and a 1959 Southern Coach that originally served as base transportation at Camp Lejeune. Donated to the museum in 2009 and restored just last year, the bus was refinished in its original Marine Corps livery to offer rides in parades to area veterans. As local news station WDBJ reports, the Southern Coach was one of the vehicles destroyed in Wednesday’s fire. The Roanoke Times reports that a 1955 GMC 4501 Scenicriuiser, one of just 1,001 examples built, was also a total loss.
Other vehicles in the museum’s collection included a 1934 Dodge Brothers school bus; a 1947 Mack C-41; a 1953 Mack; a 1958 GMC TDH3714; 1962 and ’69 GMCs; a 1962 Diamond Rio wrecker; a 1966 GM Fishbowl; a 1968 GMC Buffalo; a 1973 GM Mini-Fishbowl; a 1974 AM General; a 1976 Flxible Pentran; 1976, ’87, ’89, ’90 Flxible Metros; a 1979 Grumman; 1982 and ’89 GMC RTS; a 1991 Orion; 1991,’97, and 2000 Gillig Phantoms; a 1993 Volvo service truck; a 1994 TMC RTS; and a 1998 New Flyer D40LF.
The heat from the blaze was hot enough to destroy several coaches parked in a lot outside the building, and the cause of the fire remains under investigation. Though a full accounting of the loss has yet to be tallied, current estimates are that 15 buses – including the majority of the museum’s restored stock – were destroyed. The fire melted steel ceiling beams, leaving the remaining brick structure in danger of collapse, and the extent of the damage means the building will need to be razed.
The Commonwealth Coach & Trolley Museum also provided shuttles for Virginia’s Explore Park, Center in the Square, National D-Day Memorial, Mill Mountain Zoo, the Heart Association, Lions Conventions, the Rescue Mission, local churches, and the National EMS Memorial Service. Drivers were unpaid volunteers, and donations were accepted to offset the cost of fuel and maintenance. Donations were also the primary source of funding for the museum’s restoration projects.
In a comment to this article, museum curator Fred Donaher stated, “… our collective mission is to rise above this crisis with what’s left and continue moving forward. All does not appear to be lost at this time. We are striving to stay positive and welcome any relief and support that any of you in the rolling preservation community are willing to offer. Last but not least, feel free to visit us online at commonwealthcoachandtrolley.org and in real time in Roanoke, Virginia to see our natural beauty and unique fellow museums.”
Donations to aid the in its rebuilding are being solicited by the Virginia Museum of Transportation; for more information, visit VMT.org.