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Innovation on Display at Transportation Museums

“Trains and Boats and Planes” was a wistful Burt Bacharach and Hal David song that Dionne Warwick popularized in the 1960s. It was about someone whose love had been whisked away by trains, boats and planes, never to return.

However, there’s nothing wistful or lonely or sad about planes and boats and trains when you visit the right places. Here’s a collection of transportation museums that will have you singing happy tunes about getting from point A to point B.

Military Aviation Museum

Virginia Beach, Virginia

“Up, up and away” has special meaning at Virginia Beach’s Military Aviation Museum because here you not only can walk among vintage aircraft, but you also can hear them roar and watch them fly in the blue Virginia sky.

The Military Aviation Museum is one of the largest collections of World War I and World War II aircraft in the world. Most are airworthy. 

The collection began with a Curtiss P-40 fighter plane from World War II built in Buffalo, New York, and provided to the Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program. It crashed, and its remains were recovered north of the Arctic Circle in Russia.

After that humble start, the collection now has more than 65 planes showcased in five hangars. Among them are the restored Curtiss P-40 (of Flying Tiger fame), a P-51 Mustang, a B-25 bomber, a PBY Catalina flying boat, a Curtiss Jenny, a Sopwith Strutter and even a bright red Fokker DR1 triplane of the type the Red Baron flew in World War I.

You can arrange for a group meal amid the aircraft and visit with pilots and mechanics. If you visit on a Saturday from May through late September, the Summer of Flight programs include flight demonstrations as part of regular admission.

“Some groups enjoy arranging a flight for two in a Stearman biplane or a replica 1931 WACO biplane,” said director of operations Mitchell Welch. “The group will have a contest or a drawing to determine who gets to fly.”

USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park

Mobile, Alabama

Transportation afloat, not through the air, is the primary focus of the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile. The centerpiece, of course, is the massive USS Alabama (680 feet long, 45,000-ton displacement, crew of 2,500). The Alabama led the American fleet into Tokyo Bay on September 5, 1945, at the end of World War II.

Despite distinguished service in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Alabama was destined for the scrapyard after the war until civic-minded and tourism-conscious Mobilians stepped in, acquired the ship and got it in shape for visitors. Civilian visitation began in 1965.

The park has expanded well beyond its star attraction. A naval companion is the submarine USS Drum, which like the Alabama, is a National Historic Landmark. The Drum is the oldest American submarine on public display, and a tour illuminates the challenging lives its 72-member crew experienced.

Aircraft are another focus, with planes that include a Red-Tail P-51 fighter plane, the plane flown by the famous Tuskegee Airmen, who trained only 200 miles away at Tuskegee, Alabama. Other aircraft include a Marine One helicopter (it carried five U.S. presidents) and an A-12 Blackbird spy plane capable of flying at 2,300 miles an hour.

You can include a meal with your tour in the wardroom or on the fantail of the Alabama or in the aircraft pavilion.

Door County Maritime Museum

Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

Door County, Wisconsin, a top destination for group tours, has a brand new high-rise attraction. The 10-story Jim Kress Maritime Lighthouse Tower at the Door County Maritime Museum had its grand opening on National Maritime Day (May 22). It is the tallest building in the county.

As you would expect, it provides panoramic views of the Sturgeon Bay waterfront, Lake Michigan’s Green Bay and the surrounding countryside. There is an outdoor observation deck, along with an enclosed observation area to view the active shipyard and the largest dry dock on the Great Lakes. It is amazing to see a 1,000-foot-long Great Lakes freighter out of the water.

Other than big views, the tower’s treat is descending floor by floor for special exhibits. For instance, the 10th floor is about the working waterfront, the eighth floor is about people of the lake (from Native Americans to today’s tourists), the fifth floor is about shipbuilding and the second floor is about shipwrecks.

The museum has two other locations worthy of group attention. One is Cana Island, a nine-acre speck of land with Door County’s best-known lighthouse. It began building its reputation in 1869, more than 150 years ago. Renovation work is underway in 2022, anticipating a climb up the lighthouse’s 97-step spiral staircase by future visitors.

The other has the ominous name of the Death’s Door Maritime Museum, which comes by its name honestly. It is at the tip of Door County on the shores of Porte des Mortes (Death’s Door), a dangerous passage between Washington Island and the Door Peninsula. The museum focuses on the area’s commercial fishing tradition, and there also is an exhibit about shipwrecks and scuba diving.

California State Railroad Museum

Sacramento, California

Memories of “All aboard!” echo through the California State Railroad Museum, fittingly located just a short walk from Sacramento’s Amtrak station. The museum has 19 steam locomotives dating from 1862-1944. They range from the diminutive Southern Pacific No. 1 to the giant (as in a million pounds of oomph) Southern Pacific articulated cab-forward No. 4294.

The museum reports that fewer than 45 full-sized steam locomotives built before 1880 exist in the U.S. and that the museum has eight of them. Among them is the Central Pacific No. 1 known as the Gov. Stanford. The Gov. Stanford has a convoluted beginning. It was built in Philadelphia in 1862, taken apart and shipped in crates around Cape Horn from Boston to San Francisco, and finally carried up the Sacramento River on a schooner named the Artful Dodger. 

Changing exhibits make return visits enjoyable (a current one shows how ice-cooled railcars helped spawn “farm to fork” dining), and a substantial toy train exhibit is a permanent attraction.

Any railroad museum worth its salt offers excursions. Here, it is a 50-minute trip along the scenic Sacramento River. The power comes from one of the museum’s historic steam or diesel locomotives.

Museum of Flight


One of transportation history’s ironies is that a boat is part of the birth story of the Museum of Flight in Seattle. 

Aviation enthusiasts created the museum in the mid-1960s, and its first home was on the location of the 1962 World’s Fair. A decade later, dreams of a bigger complex took flight (pun intended), coinciding with the problematic availability of the Red Barn, the place the Boeing Company began. The issue? The Red Barn was in the wrong location and had to be transported by river barge to its current site. It now anchors a sprawling five-building complex.

With more than 175 aircraft and spacecraft, thousands of artifacts and millions of photos, this is the world’s largest independent, nonprofit air and space museum.

You’ll see the first jet-powered Air Force One, the prototype of the 747 airliner, a Blackbird spy plane that carried a James Bond-worthy drone, a fragile Aeronca Grasshopper plane from World War II, a Huey helicopter, float planes, sailplanes and even a supersonic Concorde and a B-29 Superfortress. That only scratches the surface and doesn’t even touch the list of spacecraft that includes an Apollo command module.

Groups benefit from a cadre of volunteer docents who lead complimentary tours, according to Ted Huetter, senior public relations manager. 

“We have generations of people in this region with aerospace backgrounds who volunteer here,” he said. “You can get stories from the real experts.”