The old Norfolk & Western 512 passenger car has a wall dividing the seats in front from the seats in the back. There was once a door in that wall that when closed separated the compartments completely.
Built in 1949, the 512 car sits on tracks within the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Transportation on Norfolk Avenue Southwest in downtown Roanoke. On the outside, little distinguishes it from other aging passenger cars there. Yet it’s an artifact of a grim past, the racist legacy of Jim Crow. The dividing wall separated white and black passengers.
The Roanoke chapter of the National Railway Historical Society sees potential for the 512 to serve as an educational exhibit, and has won grant funding to help make it happen.
“The historical significance is this is the last remaining N&W lightweight Jim Crow car in the world,” said Chuck Akers, a retired locomotive engineer and president of the Roanoke NHRS chapter. He asserted that it needs to be seen by current and future generations. “It shows what was wrong with the society back then.”
“This is an example of something that changed very shortly after this car was built,” said Salem rail historian Ken Miller, the chapter’s webmaster, referring to civil rights legislation passed in the 1950s. A specialist in vintage train car lettering, Miller created the stencils for the historically accurate lettering on the Norfolk & Western J-Class 611 steam engine as it was overhauled and returned to working order in 2015.
The goal will be to make the car “as close to the original as we can get it, which will be pretty close,” Akers said. “We will want to use it as a rolling museum,” he added. “Unless modern day society asks about that wall, they don’t know what it’s about.”
The chapter can also make money by leasing the car to excursion operators, Akers said.
“This is an educational piece for folks who ride,” Miller said.
The years of wear and tear and rain have taken their toll on this one-of-a-kind relic. The chapter has been awarded two grants totaling $32,250 to repair and restore the car to the point that it could once more be pulled by a locomotive. A $24,250 grant came from the John H. Emery Rail Heritage Trust, dedicated to recreating and restoring vintage railroad passenger travel. An additional $8,000 National Railroad Historical Society Heritage Grant gives the chapter funds to repair and redo all the car’s leaking windows, including obtaining new window gaskets that have to be custom made.
The 512 is P-2 class car, part of an order of 20 cars from the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Co. in Chicago that Norfolk & Western placed in 1946. The P-2 was designed to comply with Virginia’s then-current segregation rules, with a partition in the center and four restrooms instead of two.
“During the post-World War II time frame, the builders were so backed up that they did not actually get built and delivered until November 1949,” said Miller.
The center aisle of the 512 has the Powhatan Arrow train logo embedded in the tile design.
The car was taken out of service in 1970. Norfolk & Western donated the car to the Roanoke NRHS chapter in 1984, and the group did some restoration work on it then. It was used in the Roanoke-based train excursions pulled by the 611 in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Before the new restoration can begin, the society must coordinate with Norfolk Southern’s schedule to move the car to the Roanoke Industrial Center in Southeast Roanoke. There the society has property where volunteers spend weekends working on restoration projects.
One the car is moved, “we’ve got a great group of about 10 to 15 volunteers that kick a--. We can get this knocked out in a month,” Akers said.
For more information about the Roanoke chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, visit roanokenrhs.org or Roanoke Chapter NRHS on Facebook.