N.C. Transportation Museum, March 17 and 18
North Carolina’s long and rich railroad history takes center stage at the state Transportation Museum, which occupies the former Southern Railway Spencer Shops—a major steam locomotive servicing facility from the days before diesels became dominant. At its peak, more than 3,000 people worked at the complex, making it one of the largest employment centers in the region.
As visitors approached the main entrance, they were greeted by the sight of the Exhibit Train since it was parked along S. Salisbury Ave. Museum staff and docents, as well as North Carolina Train Hosts, volunteered to help staff the display cars, hand-out brochures, answer questions, and assist people as they exited at the back of the train. Attendees also stopped to look at the attractive tabletop displays and brochures provided by our partners, including the Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, North Carolina Operation Lifesaver, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Rail Division. The Rail Division had a lot of great kids’ items to hand out, but young ones can also head to their website to play games, test their knowledge of railroad lingo, and learn how to act safely around tracks and trains.
The visitors’ bureau is based in neighboring Salisbury, which is a stop for Amtrak’s daily Carolinian, Piedmont, and Crescent. Salisbury’s former Southern Railway station, built in a Spanish Mission Revival style and opened to the public in 1908, still serves passengers. Townspeople know the depot from a distance by its three-and-a-half story tower ornamented with gargoyles. By the 1980s, the building had fallen into disrepair, but the Historic Salisbury Foundation, a citizen-led revolving fund for historic preservation, took on the challenge of resurrecting the landmark.
In addition to serving travelers, the depot contains office space and the former waiting room is rented out for special events. The station revitalization is credited with sparking economic development efforts in the historic downtown. Visitors to the Exhibit Train eagerly signed up to win a pair of roundtrip tickets between Salisbury and the nation’s capital.
After walking through the Exhibit Train, many people stayed to explore the museum, which contains interesting displays documenting the history of transportation in North Carolina. One of the most popular pieces is a full replica of the famous Wright Flyer used in the world’s first heavier than air, powered controlled flight off of Kitty Hawk in 1903. Other exhibits include vehicles such as vintage cars and wagons, as well as transportation-related art.
Railfans enjoy the Bob Julian Roundhouse, which was built in 1924. It now houses a wide-ranging collection of locomotives and rail cars that trace the evolution of American railroading. But the focus of the museum is not just on the machines and energy sources that make transportation possible—people’s stories matter too. An exhibit in the former washroom introduces visitors to the lives of the Southern Railway employees who worked at the shops and built Spencer into a thriving industrial community. Another popular display is a scale model of the shops that gives the viewer an idea of their original extent and the activities that took place on site. Throughout the year, visitors can hop aboard a vintage train for a pleasant ride around the complex.
It’s said that the railroad never stops, which means we have to say goodbye to the good folks of North Carolina who so graciously welcomed us in both Spencer and Raleigh. This week we head south to lovely Charleston, where we’ll be parked near the well-preserved downtown and close to the South Carolina Aquarium—see you there!