The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Spencer Shops

By Lisa Hsiao © 1987

Issue: February, 1987

Have you ever wanted to return to the romantic days when railroad traveling was in vogue? A slower time, when businessmen toured the country in plush private cars and once ate in a moving dining room, can be recaptured at Historic Spencer Shops. This museum, formerly the main repair shops for Southern Railways, chronicles the development of transportation, with special emphasis on railroads.

The Spencer Shop complex includes the old office building, a passenger station, and several repair shops, not to mention several old railroad cars. The former mechanics' office building now houses the visitor's center, Department of Transportation Museum, and Gift Shop. Inside the museum, a variety of vehicles and artifacts show how transportation progressed from prehistoric dugout canoes to airplanes. Other museum exhibits include displays on how the media portrays transportation through advertising, and how children perceive transportation.

In addition to the cars, wagons, and planes on exhibit, the Transportation Museum includes some relics of railroad life, displaying train workers' clothing and safety shoes. A caboose, furnished with conductors' and engineers' bunks and belongings and a passenger car are also open for viewing. A push button activated tape contains an oral history by a former worker, telling of his life on the railroad. Spencer Shops' restorers have successfully preserved many of the unique features of the buildings, like fire doors and windows used to issue safety equipment. The old vault now contains the gift shop, which sells a variety of train and transportation related items, including china and linens identical to those used on the world's most famous train, the Orient Express.

Spencer Shops are much more than a museum, however. They represent not only a relic of history, but also a way of life. The town of Spencer grew out of Southern Railway's business, and many men who worked in the shops have returned to the museum to restore the engines which once provided their living. According to Michael Wells, Site Manager, these volunteers have given their invaluable knowledge and skills to make the restorations possible. The old buildings that housed engines under repair still retain the size and greatness they had when in use; the backshop where major repairs were done stands 596 feet long, 150 feet wide, and seven stories tall. A track on a giant turntable stands ready to send a train car into one of the enormous stalls in the round house. A passenger station from Barber, NC, shows what waiting for a train was like in the days of segregated waiting rooms.

Much of Spencer Shops has not yet opened to the public, but the staff and volunteers have worked endlessly to restore the buildings and railroad cars on the site. Some future features are a museum in the huge backshop, a train ride between Spencer and Salisbury Station, and displays of Pullman and other train cars. The museum owns several very valuable train cars, including the North Carolina Car from the Merci Train, one of the cars which the French sent to each state, in gratitude for the United States' aid during World War II. Spencer Shops owns the Loretto, the Pullman car of Charles Schwab, president of US steel. This car dazzles the senses with its marquetry (exquisite inlaid woodwork), stained glass windows, leather upholstery, chandeliers, and marble onyx tiled bathrooms. The Loretto's elegance recaptures the days when railroad travel transported Americans across the country in style. Also at the museum is James B. Duke's private car, the Doris. Other future vehicles on exhibit are an amphibious aircraft, as well as several rare and valuable automobiles.

Special events take place at Spencer Shops, such as a train ride to Asheville or the Uwharrie Mountains in an old fashioned steam engine. Railroad related programs are given at the center.

Southern Railway established its major repair shops at Spencer in 1896, because the little town was the halfway point between Washington and Atlanta. The shops became the South's largest railroad staging and repair facility, and over 2,500 men worked there. During its heyday, the center could service up to 100 steam engines a day, and the multiple track system accommodated 265 cars. In 1960, diesel engines made steam engines obsolete, and the shops closed. Southern Railway donated 57 acres of the site to the people of North Carolina in 1977, and restoration began.

The museum opens year round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. Hours vary by season, and groups may request tours. For more information, contact Spencer Shops, 411 S. Salisbury Ave., Spencer, NC 28159. 704-636-2889.