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Love of railroads spans the Carolinas

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  • Riding the rails
  • Rail Hotspots

    N.C. Transportation Museum: Off Exit 79 of I-85. 411 S. Salisbury Ave., Spencer. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $6. More: 704-636-2889;

    Hamlet Historic Depot & Museum: 2 West Main St., Hamlet. Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays; 1-5 p.m. weekends. More: 910-417-7791;

    Wilmington Railroad Museum: 505 Nutt St., Wilmington. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays. Admission: $8.50. More: 910-763-2634;

    Great Smoky Mountains Railroad: 226 Everett St., Bryson City. Excursion times and prices vary. More: 800-872-4681;

SPENCER Two months shy of its 100th birthday, Copperhead looks great for its age.

For decades, the great locomotive was a puffing, chugging, clanging symbol of the immense muscle of the industrial age. Now in its second retirement, the two-story tall, 10-wheeled giant still inspires awe as a relic of the industry that revolutionized travel and commerce and, because of the confluence of 19th-century rail lines, turned Charlotte into a modern trade center.

Carolinians have a strange love affair with their railroads. Museums from the Smokies to the coast celebrate the golden era of the rails and tens of thousands visit annually to admire the massive artifacts.

On Saturday, the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer will launch its “Museum in Motion” Festival celebrating the rails with various rides – including an excursion made of cabooses – and hobbyists displaying elaborate model railways. Former hobos will talk about what life was like bumming on the rails and experts will discuss Copperhead and its restored steam colleagues.

Formerly known as “Rail Days,” the festival at the beginning of the tourist season is one of the region’s largest gatherings dedicated to historic railroading.

It’s an audience that never seems to grow old, says Rob Van Camp, known for his UNC-TV documentaries about historic railways. From each generation – from the Thomas the Tank Engine crowd to those susceptible to a flood of memories triggered by a distant steam whistle – people are fascinated by old trains, particularly the magnificent coal-powered locomotives, he says.

“It’s the mechanics, I think. There are about 3,000 moving parts in a steam engine,” says Van Camp. “Old timers say it’s alive – the closest thing man has built to something being human. It’s got to eat, it’s got to drink…”

North Carolina’s Transportation Museum in the old Spencer Yards north of Salisbury is the biggest repository in the Carolinas relics of the rail and draws 80,000 visitors annually.

Diesels doomed Spencer

Plopped midway between the hubs of Washington and Atlanta, Spencer was chosen by Southern Railway Co.’s president J.P. Morgan for locomotive shops. Steam engines needed a lot of maintenance and in 1896 Southern built a huge complex for their care. At its peak, 3,000 people worked for the yard.

Half a century later, diesel engines – efficient, durable and far less needy – rode to the front of the pack. As the railroads adopted diesels, Spencer ran out of steam.

In 1977, Southern Railway began turning the site over to the state of North Carolina,. In 1983 the museum was born. Preserved at its heart is the largest standing roundhouse in North America, complete with a working turntable to guide old engines into its bays.

Here reside the sleeping titans of the steam age, what Van Camp calls “monstrous beasts that breathe air.” Copperhead, nicknamed for the bright copper rings that its smokestack originally bore, is one of six steam engines in the museum.

It hauled freight and passengers for the Wilmington-based Atlantic Coast Line and roved from Jacksonville, Fla. to Richmond. When newfangled diesels shoved it aside in the ‘50s, it took what work it could find on branch lines in Tarboro and Lumberton.

Finally, in 1959, its furnace finally went cold. For the next 37 years it served as a lawn decoration behind the Florence, S.C., train station. In 1994, the city of Florence gave it to the Spencer museum, which affectionately spiffed the engine back to its 1940s heyday appearance.

In its new life, it pulls no load but still draws ahhhhs. With shining steel wheels shoulder high to a man, the Copperhead occupies its own roundhouse stall near mighty companions like the Seaboard Air Line No. 544.

Heritage passed down

It was built by American Locomotive Co. for the Russian State Railroad, but that was one journey it never made. While it was under construction, the Revolution of 1917 swept the Czar’s empire and voided the deal. No. 544 was instead drafted by the U.S. government to haul vital supplies to ports in World War I. It stayed busy into late ‘50s and was restored at Spencer in 1996.

When the museum opened 30 years ago, it found willing volunteers in local Southern retirees, whose skills were revived for restorations.

“So many of them have died off,” says museum historian Walter Turner. “They had a huge role. Over the years, they taught a younger generation of volunteers that came from all kinds of backgrounds.”

Turner’s domain includes many noted exhibits, including two rail cars built for industrial titans.

First is the Loretto, with ornate carvings finished in gold leaf and stained glass windows. It was built in 1902 to carry steel magnate Charles Schwab. It was later owned by Springs Mill in Fort Mill.

Then there’s the rail car owned by Southern Power and American Tobacco’s James B. Duke. He named it Doris, after his daughter. Turner says it is modest compared with Schwab’s ride, though Duke didn’t skimp on amenities – he spent $400 alone on embroidered napkins for the car.

A town built for trains

No Carolinas train tour can omit quaint Hamlet, just east of Rockingham. It was here that the rails of the Seaboard Air Line crossed, and headed into the four cardinal directions. At the turn of the 20th century, more than 30 trains a day paused on journeys to New York, New Orleans, Norfolk and Florida.

“Hamlet was like the Charlotte airport is today,” says Miranda Chavis, who manages the rail museum beside the restored 1900 passenger station built in grand Queen Anne Victorian style. “Small town, big railroads.”

It was one of the nation’s earliest tourist traps. There were seven hotels and many boarding houses for transferring passengers in the town nicknamed “Hub of the Seaboard.” Shops and restaurants catered to visitors. There was an opera house where tenor Enrico Caruso once performed. Lavish accommodations were to be found at the Seaboard Hotel, which fronted the tracks.

Hamlet, pop. 6,000, is still a railroad town. Amtrak stops twice a day and Seaboard’s successor railroad CSX has a massive switching yard just outside of town. In front of the Hamlet station, the tracks still cross and trains constantly thunder through, attracting train watchers. In the book “Guide to North American Railroad Hot Spots” by J. David Ingles, Hamlet is listed as the prime watching spot for train fans in North Carolina.

Some train watchers spent the day at the crosstrack listening to radio chatter from the CSX yard and enjoying the passing freights. Chavis says some magnificent trains pass through, some of them a string of steel 200 cars long. She’s seen Army trains en route to Fayetteville and the circus train headed to its next gig.

Hamlet’s museum has had visitors from all 50 states and more than 30 countries, says Chavis. Attractions include exhibits that explain the various jobs on the railroads, how rail wheels changed over time and an 1898 map of the Seaboard line that lights up its key routes.

Mountains to the coast

Other destinations celebrating rail are scattered across the Carolinas:

• One of the great excursion railways in the nation originates in Bryson City. Through river gorges, two tunnels and over 25 bridges runs the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, whose credits include being used for the 1993 movie “The Fugitive.” Widely considered a rare gem among tourist railways because of its primitive surroundings, the railroad is marking its 25th anniversary this year.

• When it was completed in 1840, the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad was the longest continuous rail line in the world – 161 miles. It eventually became the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, based in Wilmington. In an 1883 freight warehouse is the Wilmington Railroad Museum, which enshrines the history of the railway and, more famously, the legend of conductor Joe Baldwin, decapitated in a train wreck. He is believed by some to be the apparition associated with the famed Maco Lights, an eternal spirit holding a lantern in search of his head.

• A museum in the old depot at Branchville, S.C., preserves the heritage of the town, which claims to be the site of the first railroad junction in the world in the 1830s when the South Carolina Railroad branched out. Presidents William H. Taft, William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt stopped at the depot and the town holds an annual Raylrode Daze festival.

Van Camp, the UNC-TV documentarian, says he’s encouraged that so much of the rail history of the Carolinas has been preserved. He understands the fascination that draws people to the trains.

“It’s the backbone that built our country,” he says. “It opened up the West. They’re engrained in the fabric of our county. And they’re beautiful pieces of work, absolutely magnificent.”

Washburn: 704-358-5007.
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