William L. Withuhn, a licensed locomotive engineer who, during his 27 years as transportation curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, could have been called America’s official train collector, died June 29 at his home in Burson, Calif. He was 75.
The cause was heart disease, said his wife, Gail Withuhn.
Mr. Withuhn was an expert on all modes of transportation — planes, trains and automobiles — and helped the American History Museum acquire many major items, including Richard Petty’s No. 43 Pontiac stock car, which he drove for his 200th and final NASCAR victory.
Mr. Withuhn was also a sports-car enthusiast who had flown more than 200 combat missions as a navigator in the Vietnam War, but his greatest fascination was with trains. He grew up in the railroad town of Modesto, Calif., and while still in his 20s received his engineer’s certification.
He later operated short-line railroads in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New York and became a railroad historian, preservationist and advocate in Congress before turning his love of transportation into a career at the Smithsonian.
In 1981, Mr. Withuhn helped prepare the Smithsonian’s 1831 John Bull locomotive, the oldest self-propelled vehicle in North America, for a short run in Georgetown.
“Americans ride the trains in their hearts,” he wrote in a 2002 essay for Newsday. “Trains built America, physically interlacing a huge geography and splintered political regions into a national union. . . . We became the most mobile nation in the late 19th century, with trains.”
After becoming the history museum’s transportation curator in 1983, Mr. Withuhn sought to show how the country’s development, and even its spirit of restless adventure, was intertwined with various modes of transport.
He oversaw more than 20 major exhibitions and was instrumental in developing a 26,000-square-foot permanent transportation exhibit, “America on the…