Craig Huffman of Lake Saint Louis walked slowly between two long lines of stationary railroad cars and engines on tracks, soaking in the magnificence and workmanship of the old trains.
"I love the different types," he said, clearly fascinated. "The ingenuity, the American ingenuity."
Wieker and her girls, Celiah, Hanna and Alice were at the museum "looking for something to do" on a recent warm spring day.
"It’s cool," Wieker said. "I think everyone likes it."
Especially her dad, who kept falling behind as he admired the rows of iron horses.
"This is amazing," he said, gazing at an old but completely restored electric-powered train. "It’s a lot of work."
Huffman looked like all he needed was a striped engineer’s cap atop his silver-white hair to be four again.
"This is pretty neat," he said. "I’ve lived here 20 years, and this is the first time I’ve been here."
With approximately 250 items on display, the museum has something for everyone.
"We have what’s recognized as the largest collection of rolling stock in the country," Coby Ellison, the museum’s curator of collections, said.
In addition to an extensive selection of trains, the museum also has cars formerly owned by Dean Martin, Bobby Darin and W.C. Fields, plus motorcycles once belonging to Steve McQueen and Clint Walker. Those vehicles are all part of the current display, Unique Motors: Cars, Boats and Bikes With a Distinguishing Story.
"The vehicles were mostly owned by famous people, or they were in movies, or they were involved in some sort of event, so that they have this extrinsic value, rather than an intrinsic value," Ellison said. "It’s not necessarily about the V-8 that propelled the four motors, but it’s about why their story makes them so interesting."
The first thing visitors should notice when entering the Earl C. Lindburg Automobile Center that houses the exhibit is a bright red boat of a car, with swooping lines, immense tail fins and a sparkling, futuristic appearance. It has chrome pipes near the front fender, whitewall tires with hubcaps that match the color of the car, and a driver’s-side control panel that looks like the cockpit of a plane, with dials, six silver levers and a see-through speedometer mounted on top of the dashboard.
"It looks like it’s out of The Jetsons or something," Ellison said.
It was designed and built by clothing designer Andy DiDia from 1953 to 1960, at a cost of $153,647.29. Singer-actor Bobby Darin, a friend of the designer, purchased the one-of-a-kind car and drove it to the Academy Awards and used it in movies. Darin donated it to the museum in 1970, three years before his death. Like many of the vehicles in the exhibit, the DiDia car still works.
"It’s actually kind of a drag to drive," Ellison said. He's driven the DiDia out of the showroom and into the parking lot so it can be loaded onto a carrier when the museum loans it out. "It’s so swimmy," he said.
Next to the DiDia is a 1963 Chrysler turbine, a car that can run on virtually any flammable liquid.
"It was an experimental project that, for whatever reason--I hear all these rumors --Chrysler decided to abandon it," Ellison said. "I’ve heard that it would burn hot, and if you get behind it, it actually does burn the pavement. It’s a jet engine, basically."
Nearby is a jet black Ghia L6.4, an Italian-designed car formerly owned by Dean Martin. It has sleek lines, ornate chrome hubcaps, a huge engine and a front grill that makes it look like the car is smiling.
"I think there were only like 26 of these made," Ellison said. "From what I understand, they were built for the Rat Pack--the members of the Rat Pack all had them. The thing that makes this car particularly unique is Dean Martin felt like his should be a little more distinctive, so he had George Barris from Barris Custom Cars do some more customization on it. They changed the headlights and did some subtle things, but still made it more unique."
Barris, a well known customizer, created the Batmobile, the Munster’s Koach, the Beverly Hillbillies truck and the Monkeemobile. Barris was also the mastermind behind another vehicle in the display--the Fire Bug, a car-sized fire truck first used by the Los Angeles Fire Department and later driven by the zany Banana Splits characters in a TV show popular in the late 1960s.
"I said, ‘I have to have that.’ This is so awesome," Ellison said.
The sizzling red vehicle has red-orange flame decals along the sides, orange-and-yellow seats, two flashing lights and a small ladder mounted on top. It even has a 100-gallon water tank and pump system.
"Everything’s custom," Ellison said. "It runs, and it’s loud."
A few yards away, two cars used in the movie The Great Race, a 1912 Overland and a 1913 Cartercar, sit side by side. While neither car had a prominent role in the film, the pair of hand-crank vehicles are a testament to a bygone era.
"They weren’t feature cars, but there’s something about them that’s really nice," Ellison said.
Beyond the Cartercar is a V12 Lincoln Willoughby black limousine. It was ordered by the City of New York for the 1939 World’s Fair and was later used in tickertape parades. It is believed, Ellison said, that billionaire Howard Hughes once rode in the Lincoln. Most of the space across from the Lincoln is occupied by a bus once owned by August A. Busch and a 38-foot boat piloted by Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael Reagan.
The bus, which has a kitchen, Pullman berths, bathroom with shower, lounge and skylights, was one of the earliest RVs, Ellison said. The Model 2250 Yellow Coach was built in 1931 for the president of Buick Motors and was owned by Busch from 1941 to 1946.
On one side of the bus is a red Rickman Matisse motorcycle formerly owned by actor Clint Walker. Beyond the bus is an olive-green 1941 Indian motorcycle that was part of Steve McQueen’s collection. The boat, a Wellcraft Scarab, was piloted by Michael Reagan when he set a speed record from New Orleans to St. Louis.
The vehicles in this collection are priceless.
"There’s no real value you can put on these," Ellison said.
The museum opened in 1944 and was taken over by the St. Louis County Parks Department in 1980.
The first acquisition, in 1944, was the 1870s mule-drawn streetcar the Bellefontaine. The collection now includes a tug boat, a C-47 A transport plane and more than 70 trains, with a wide range of locomotives, transport and storage cars and cabooses.
The oldest train on display is the Boston and Providence Railroad’s Daniel Nason, which was new when Abraham Lincoln was in office. Other highlights include a Waterworks #10 Railway electric train built in 1914, the Union Pacific Big Boy engine that could pull a line of train cars up to 5.5 miles long, and the Whale Belly tanker, the largest tank car in the world. The Whale Belly, actually shaped like the belly of a blue whale, is 96 feet long and can hold 60,200 gallons of liquid.
Ellison is particularly proud of the restoration he and a crew did on a car from the 1940s era Missouri Pacific Eagle line, which ran from Omaha, NE to St. Louis.
"This car is of an era I like, between deco and modern," he said. "It was also used by Harry Truman when he was vice president and (also) senator, to travel throughout the state of Missouri. There’s a stateroom inside the car that he used as his personal office. Plus, there’s just something cool about it. I also have some attachment because of all the work I put into it."
Ellison and volunteer workers spent three years putting the passenger car back in pristine condition. Lounge chairs and carpeting look new. In a nice touch, a hand of cards, along with a Coke bottle, coffee cup and several coins for ante, is spread on a table between two chairs. It looks as if passengers are just waiting to hear the "all aboard" call to take their seats. Blinds, windows, carpet, fabric for furniture – all had to be replaced.
"This was a full-on cosmetic restoration," he said.
Ellison is also proud of The Aleutian, a passenger train used in Alaska in the 1920s. Sitting rooms, berths for passengers and crew, and a dining room car are all testament to a simpler, slower time when people ate, slept and socialized as trains took them to distant destinations.
"It looks pretty rough," Ellison said, pointing to the walls and light fixtures in the dining car. "But it’s never been touched, so you’re looking at a time capsule. There’s something about that patina and time capsule quality that’s important in letting people experience this."
The Museum of Transportation is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday (winter hours through April 30). Longer summer hours begin May 1.
Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children 5-12, seniors and military and free for children younger than age 5.
The museum has several special events coming up. This Saturday and Sunday, replicas of the movie Cars will make an appearance during museum hours.
On April 3, the museum will host an all Ford car show called Ten Decades of Fords.
Getting there from Wentzville
The Museum of Transportation is located at 3015 Barrett Station Road in Kirkwood, MO 63122. Take Highway 40 east to I-270 south to Exit 8 at Dougherty Ferry Road. Take that west to Barrett Station Road and turn left (south). Follow signs to the museum, which is on the right.