Ever think of Roanoke, Va., as a cold place? It is since “Son of Polar Vortex” swept in. As I write this it’s 23 degrees F with a strong breeze, which makes for a wind chill of what feels like zero. I know because I’m from Up North where it’s colder.
Yes, it’s a lot colder in Minnesota and North Dakota, but I just hoofed the six blocks from the Transportation Museum of Virginia to the Hotel Roanoke and am warming up in my room. The walk to the museum was worse because I faced the wind most of the way.
I spent a few hours wandering around looking at trains, planes and automobiles, as well as a few trucks. This is primarily a place for railroad buffs; there’s a lot of history in photos and short essays on the walls, and a recreation of an old city street with store-front facades.
Up front there's a large O-gauge model railroad on which piggyback and container trains were running, and tiny rigs are backed into loading docks, just like in the real world.
Piggyback is part of the O-gauge model railroad's operation.
There are a few real trucks, too. Some are Ford Model AA and B pickups from the late 1920s and ‘30s. These are part of an “automobile gallery” inside the building. Outside in the cold, slid in between rows of old steam and diesel-electric locomotives, are a few commercial vehicles.
Little big rigs are backed into loading docks, like in real life.
Most noteworthy is the one you see here: A 1947 Fruehauf round-nosed semitrailer, maybe a 35-footer, hitched to a ’60 Mack B42 tractor, all lettered for the old Overnite Transportation.
The trailer’s rear-end is chromed and spotless, and its polished stainless-steel sides gleam in the sun. They’re so shiny that I had trouble photographing the trailer. The Mack tractor wears the old blue-and-grey paint scheme and is likewise in show condition.
Stainless steel sides of '47 Fruehauf were so bight it was difficult to shoot a photo.
Overnite’s working rigs absolutely never looked like this, I can tell you. I’d see them on my travels 20 and 30 years ago and frowned at how dirty they usually were. While riding my motorcycle, I got behind them too often on southern California’s freeways and got the full effect of the tractors’ smoky exhaust billowing out from under the trailers.
Shortly after Overnite was sold to the Union Pacific Railway in 1987 by its founder, J. Harwood Cochrane, I interviewed him in his office in Richmond. The UP kept him on during a transition period, after which he went into semi-retirement.
He was a wiry white-haired guy in his 80s by then, and rather proud of what he had accomplished.
He started out as a milk deliveryman at age 17 in 1929 and later formed Overnite, a less-than-truckload carrier. He built it into the largest non-union trucking company in America. A Teamster organizing drive and maybe his advancing age caused him to take a UP offer that made him a billionaire.
During our conversation I thought of his smoky rigs, and that the tractors had horizontal exhaust systems rather than vertical stacks. I asked Mr. Cochrane why.
“You don’t know?” he retorted.
“No,” I don’t,” I said.
“Public relations!” he said forcefully. “With those vertical stacks, the exhaust smoke leaves big smudges on the front corner of the trailers. The low exhaust keeps the soot away from up there and out of the public’s sight!”
Unless the public is a guy on a motorcycle who gets to breathe in that smoke, I wanted to say, but didn’t. He was the billionaire and I was just a reporter.
(UP’s management knew how to run a railroad, but found it couldn’t run a truck line, so later sold Overnite to an outfit whose managers know what they’re doing -- United Parcel Service, which changed the name to UPS Freight.)
I thought of all that as I looked at the brighter-than-life Fruehauf and Mack. Just then a museum volunteer, all bundled up against the cold and engaged with colleagues in the moving of a giant Norfolk & Western steam locomotive, happened by. She and I began yakking, first about the weather, of course, and then where we both were originally from -- Wisconsin.
And here we are in Roanoke. How about that?
Then we talked about the Overnite rig and I remarked that I recall, back in the day, seeing lots of Mack B61s, with tandem rear axles.
Lisa "Wizzy" Strom says museum volunteers keep the Overnite rig shined up.
“Yeah,” she said.
But I don’t remember seeing a B42, I continued. That model number makes sense – four wheels with two of them driving.
“Right,” she said.
“How would you know that?” I asked her.
“My dad was a trucker. He drove for Chizek.”
“Chizek, out of Cleveland (Wis.),” I said. “Light blue-and-white tractors.”
“Yes!” How about that?
Her name is “Wizzy” Strom, but she’s Lisa when she goes back to Ashland, Wis., to visit friends and relatives. For some reason someone gave her the Wizzy nickname when she lived for a time in Oregon.
Well, the Overnite rig looks good, I said.
“Yeah, we keep it clean. About once a year we take it out from under here (we were inside a tall train shed) and out to the parking lot and drive it around, and shine it up.”
Then she had another thought.
“It was in a movie – ‘Killing Kennedy,’ on the History Channel. Did you see it?”
No, I hadn’t, but will look for it now.
“We had other vehicles in it, too. Our taxi, and some other cars, and an ambulance. It carried Kennedy’s ‘body.’ They were in toward the end.” It was filmed over in Richmond, she said.
That’s where J. Harwood Cochrane was from. How about that?