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NC Transportation Museum


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    Published 8-7-2019

    This is one of the gems which is hidden right off a major interstate. It’s for transportation buffs, especially railroad buffs. In the late nineteenth century, J.P. Morgan, owner of what was once the Southern Railway Company, located its largest steam locomotive servicing facility halfway between the railroad’s major terminal points of Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. The complex was named after the first president of the Southern Railway, Samuel Spencer. The nearby town took on the same name. Today that site is right off Interstate 85, Exit 79, in North Carolina (just outside Salisbury).

    skyview of NC transportation musuem
     A bird’s-eye view of the museum site, with the Roundhouse lower right and Back Shop about the middle.
    Credit: NCTM.

    Construction of Spencer Shops began in 1896 and it became a major East Coast locomotive servicing center for over 60 years. It was huge and still is, employing nearly 3,000 people at its peak. It declined with the advent of the diesel locomotive and closed in 1960.The yards remained open until the late 1970s. Southern Railways donated the land and buildings to the state of North Carolina, and it became a state historic site, with the first exhibit opening in 1983.

    barber junction
    The visitor center is located in Barber Junction.

    The 60-acre site has four exhibit buildings that remain from the historic Spencer Shops. The roundhouse, the largest remaining one in North America, features the steam and diesel locomotives, plus a lot more. The huge Back Shop (90,000 square feet) features the aviation, boat, and automotive exhibits. The visitor’s center is Barber Junction, a building from the town of the same name, constructed in 1898 and moved to the site. Don’t miss the movie that presents the history of the Shops. Part of admission is a 25-minute train ride that departs from Barber Junction, runs to the roundhouse, and returns. One excellent option is half of a train ride, with a long walk back through the exhibit buildings. Other buildings include the master mechanic’s office, flue shop, and storehouse no. 3, built in 1896. The master mechanic’s office includes a large gift shop. 

    Roundhouse for train
    Close-up of the roundhouse.  Credit: NCTM.
    passengers boarding trail wiht conductor at door

    The conductor helps passengers board the train for the 25-minute ride.

     The trains leaves Barber Junction for the Roundhouse.

    The roundhouse has 37 stalls and many of them have locomotives or box cars in them. Some can be boarded. All have at least full access. Both steam and diesel locomotives are included, plus some specialty railroad equipment. All kinds of box cars are in the collection, for example, a railroad post office and a hospital car.

    train engine         train engine
    Seaboard Air Line # 544, built 1918 for Russian State Railroad, but not delivered due to Revolution of 1917.
    Used to ship war supplies in World War I, later in the Seaboard system.
    Southern Railway #542, built for Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1903. Operated on Southern Railroad around Statesville and Winston-Salem. 
    train engine train engine
    Atlantic Coast Line #1031, built in 1913. Nicknamed “Copperhead” due to bright copper rings around top of smokestack. Operated from Richmond, VA to Jacksonville, FL Southern Railroad #6900, diesel locomotive built in 1950.
    Old fashioned train engine
    The Raleigh replica of the first steam locomotive to operate in North Carolina, built in 1927 by Seaboard Air Line.
    a red boxcar
    Of course, there are lots of box cars to go along with the locomotives.
    inside of hospital train car
     Inside of a hospital car.
    "ghost" preforming maintainence on train
    Ghost performing maintenance work. Inside of mail car.

    OK, we’ve discussed trains, what about the planes? There is an excellent exhibit on “The Wright Brothers: Inventing the Airplane.” It includes a full-size replica of the Wright Flyer (21-foot length, 40-foot wingspan, and weighing 600 pounds). The “Potomac Pacemaker,” a Piedmont Airlines DC-3, is also on display. Piedmont was the premier North Carolina airline and much of its aircraft lore is included.   

    model of wright bros plane
    The Wright Flyer about to take off.
    Piedmont airline display
    Piedmont Airlines is heavily covered in the aviation exhibit, making one think of the good old days of air travel.
    part of a DC3
    The Potomac Pacemaker, or what is left of it as it is being reconstructed.

    There are plenty of automobiles and a few boats.  Plus, all other sorts of transportation items, including sub-categories like fire equipment and military vehicles. Consider that the Back Shop is 90,000 square feet and is sub-divided into topical areas, giving the visitor plenty to see. The description “transportation” is certainly appropriate, with often special items you’d just would not expect to see.

    The Back Shop contains most of the automobiles, trucks, wagons, and boats.
    There are lots of stalls and lots of space, 90,000 square feet.
    ford woody station wagon
    A Ford Woody station wagon.
    roadster and other old autos
    1931 Chrysler Roadster. A new offering was a floating suspension system.
    Despite the Depression, Chrysler was still making engineering improvements.
    Railway Express delivery truck.
    Railway Express delivery truck.
    WWII jeep
    One of the military vehicles, familiar to anyone who has seen a World War II movie.
    covered wagon and buggy
    Lots of wagons, even covered ones.
    antique firetruck
    Brockway Step Hook and Ladder Truck, built about 1917 and used in Elizabeth City, NC until the 1950s.
    It carries 250 feet of ladder and a 35-gallon tank of chemical fire retardant.
    old fashioned buggy
    Transportation covers horse and buggy too.
    dugout canoes
    There are plenty of boats, even dugout canoes.








    For additional information:

    North Carolina Transportation Museum Homepage


    Museum Brochure




    Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University. He has an interest in history, forestry and natural resources, natural history, the American West.

    He usually travels with his wife, Pat, who is a consulting forester and the photographer on most articles. They reside in South Carolina, but have also lived in Mississippi and Virginia.

    They try to write their articles on lessor known spots or angles on better known spots, like the trail leading to a battlefield, rather than the battlefield itself. Given where they live, they have good access to Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, and this is a favorite topic.




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