U.S. 686

Photo courtesy of the Roanoke (Virginia) Transportation Museum

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From the Panama Canal Spillway August 16, 1974


Panama Canal Towing Locomotive no 686 - one of the original fleet of 40 mules built by General Electric in 1914 for the Panama Canal - has found a home in the Roanoke (Va) Transportation Museum.

Dorn Thomas, a former Panama Canal employee, spent 8 years, $936 and all of his power of persuasion to get it there.

Thomas, a resident of Roanoke, is the son of a Canal "oldtimer" who arrived on the Isthmus in 1907 and worked as a foreman of the plant that mixed cement to build the walls and floors of the Canal locks.

After graduating from high school Thomas received a 4-year electrician's apprenticeship and worked on the rewiring project that converted electrical current in the Canal to 60-cycle, making the 25-cycle mules obsolete.

Thomas left the Zone for college in 1955, and after graduating from Georgia Tech went to work for General Electric.

In his travels for the company, he came upon one of the Canal's old mules that he had helped force into obsolescence. He wanted it and asked for it, but GE had other plans. They were going to place it in their transportation museum.

But they didn't. Six years later, Thomas read an article in a company magazine about an orphaned mule that had been donated to a GE electrical products museum that never materialized.

Thomas went hunting and found the rusty antique in a junkyard in Schenectady, N.Y., where it had been moved to keep it out of the way. Now, Thomas learned, he could have the mule but the yard owner said it would cost $850 to move it back to the siding and onto a flatbed car. The railroads said they give free transportation to museum pieces for museums but not for private individuals.

It took private individual Thomas another 2 years before he found a museum interested in his mule. By coincidence, it was the National Historical Railway Society right in his hometown of Roanoke.

He made an agreement with the society and with the city. He would take care of getting the antique on the train. The city's Transportation Museum would arrange free transit on the rails. The Historical Society and the city would take care of expenses once it arrived.

The society even advanced Thomas the $936 (the price had gone up in 2 years) to get the mule on the train. He was to repay the money by next month.

Today, the mule, which is one of the few units still in existence, is being restored to its original appearance as a joint project of the City of Roanoke and the Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. When the restoration is complete, the exhibit will be dedicated "To the men and women that participated in the construction and operation of the Panama Canal."


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Last Update: October 6, 1998

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