Awards: Railroad Depot and Roundhouse Renovations
The Federal Highway Administration's
2003 Environmental Excellence Awards
Railroad Depot and Roundhouse Renovations
Before the era of Interstate highways, railroads carried the bulk of the North Carolina’s goods
and citizens. Often the most important link between a community and the outside world was its
rail-passenger station. It was one of the most crowded places in our cities and towns, teeming
with hundreds of passengers each day. Stations not only served as "gateways," but also provided
identity for many cities and communities in North Carolina.
As rail-passenger traffic declined after World War II, train stations lost their importance and
by the 1960’s, many in North Carolina were run down, closed or had been demolished. In the 1990’s,
the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and Amtrak launched the Carolinian
and Piedmont passenger trains, sparking a revival of rail travel across the state. As
passenger trains continue to grow in popularity, North Carolina's cities are beginning to
rehabilitate their historic stations or plan for new stations. Completed or nearing completions
are renovations to historic stations at Salisbury, Fayetteville, Hamlet, Wilson and Rocky Mount.
Scheduled for refurbishing are historic depots at Greensboro, High Point and Selma. Plans are
also underway for preserving the historic station at Southern Pines.
Salisbury has one of North Carolina’s finest old stations, built in 1908 by the Southern Railway near
the junction of its Washington-Atlanta main line and the Western North Carolina line to Asheville and
beyond. The Salisbury Historic Foundation acquired the station in 1984 to save it from demolition and
raised over $3 million in private donations to restore the main waiting room and other parts of the
building. NCDOT contributed more than $1 million in federal Enhancement Funds to finish the restoration
of the main building. The NCDOT also has contributed funds for the creation of a transitional park east
of the station, linking it to the downtown business district, and for construction of an enlarged waiting
room. Platform, canopy and track rehabilitation will be carried out in a future project.
Wilson boasts another fine old station that has recently been refurbished. Built in 1924 by the Atlantic
Coast Line Railroad on its Richmond-to-Florida main line, the rebuilt structure houses an Amtrak ticket
office, waiting room, baggage room and vending area. A small police substation is also housed in the
rehabilitated station. Restoration of the historic platform canopies, as well as construction of a
new connecting canopy between the station and the platform, has been completed. In addition, NCDOT
commissioned a large mural, depicting 100 years of railroad history in Wilson, for the station's
waiting room. Chapel Hill artist Michael Brown completed and installed the beautiful mural in 1999.
This summer, the City of Wilson began work on parking and landscaping improvements around the station.
NCDOT has contributed more than $2.3 million in federal Enhancement Funds to the project.
Rocky Mount's newly restored station, located in their historic district, should be ready for passengers
by the fall of 2002. Wilmington & Weldon Railroad originally built the station in 1893 as a two-story
central building with one-story wings. In 1912, Atlantic Coast Line Railroad added two stories to the
wings and in 1916, a third story was added to the entire structure. Evidence suggests that the last two
times the building was enlarged, the original roof was raised. In the 1960's, a modern addition was built
between the wings to house railroad switches and signal equipment. The rehabilitated first floor houses
the Amtrak waiting room and ticket areas, as well as the baggage claim. Its second floor will house the
Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce and the third floor will house other businesses through leased space when
complete. An adjoining building, formerly used by the defunct Railway Express Agency, currently houses
the Greyhound Bus station, the City bus transfer center, and a restaurant.
In High Point, work is beginning this summer on station restoration with removal of asbestos and
lead-based paint. A complete rehabilitation will follow once the toxins are removed. Work will
include restoring the old baggage room into a large public access meeting room and replacing a
pedestrian bridge, the canopy and platform. Built in 1907 by the Southern Railway Company, this
station is an excellent example of Richardson Romanesque architecture. The station lies in the
heart of High Point's downtown.
In Selma, complete depot renovation began last fall after a temporary station was put in place
nearby. The Selma Union Depot was built in 1924 as a joint passenger station for the Atlantic
Coast Line Railroad and the Southern Railway. The station is completely surrounded by tracks
and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to the train depot renovations, NCDOT has also partnered in significant restoration
activities with the North Carolina Transportation Museum (NCTM), located in Spencer, N.C. A major
part of the NCTM partnership includes the restoration of the Robert Julian Roundhouse. This 37-bay
roundhouse was constructed in 1924 and served as the Southern Railway’s largest repair center for
steam engines until after World War II. Today, the roundhouse is the largest surviving structure
of its type in the nation. The project encompassed the restoration of the roundhouse structure
itself, and then the transformation of the roundhouse into one of the most exciting transportation
museums in the nation.
The North Carolina Transportation Museum is located on the site of what was once the Southern Railway
Company’s largest steam locomotive servicing facility, formerly known as Spencer Shops. Samuel Spencer,
the Railway’s first President, formed the Southern Railway in 1894 and constructed the first servicing
facility, a small roundhouse, in 1896. The location of the Railway's repair shops was chosen because
it’s geographically located halfway between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, GA. At this site repaired
locomotives could exit the facility traveling in any direction.
The original roundhouse had 37 stalls and a 100-foot long electric turntable. Each steam engine that
came into Spencer would be separated from its freight, given a thorough inspection, and have any
needed repairs performed before it returned to the line. Upon completion of repair work, the engine
would be backed onto the turntable and returned to the service area beside the roundhouse until
needed. If heavy repair or a complete overhaul needed to be performed, the locomotive would advance
to the backshop, where this type of work was performed. The backshop, built prior to 1920, was the
largest commercial building constructed in North Carolina at that time, being 64 feet tall, 596
feet long, and 150 feet wide. With it massive size, up to fifteen locomotives could be serviced
in the backshop at one time. Future museum expansion plans include the complete restoration of the
backshop, which is adjacent to the roundhouse.
With the advent of the faster and easily maintained diesel locomotive in the late 1940's and early 1950's,
the need for an operation like Spencer Shops waned and Southern Railway closed the main facility in 1960.
Employment dropped from 3000 employees to a relatively small handful of workers doing light repairs to
freight cars and some diesel locomotives. Finally in 1979 all work came to a halt as Southern Railway
moved to its modern new complex just north of Spencer across the Yadkin River.
With the decline of Spencer Shops, many people understood how important Spencer was in the history of
railroading in North Carolina. Two donations in the late 1970’s by Southern Railway provided the state
of North Carolina the shops and 53 acres of land that now make up the North Carolina Transportation
Museum. Exhibits are now housed throughout the original facility and most importantly, in the restored
Roundhouse. The exhibits focus on the lives of the men who made Spencer Shops run and the history of
railroads in North Carolina. The Junction Depot, which was moved twelve miles from the town of Barber,
serves as the Visitors Center. Each year, thousands of visitors enjoy the exhibits, train rides,
turntable rides, educational programs and special events.
The restored Robert Julian Roundhouse accommodates more than twenty-five restored locomotives and rail
cars. The first sixteen bays store various pieces of rolling stock that do not need tight security.
Changing panels describe the various cars and provide observation areas for visitors. The locker room
has been restored to its original appearance with lifelike figures of the men who worked at Spencer
Shops. The room next to the locker room houses an auditorium with an audiovisual program on the history
of Spencer Shops. Visitors can enter and leave the room at their leisure and the program can run
automatically or with a button activated by the visitor.
Bays 17-20 house a permanent exhibit with panels, cases, artifacts, and participatory exhibits. These
displays focus on Spencer Shops from its beginning in 1896 through the present.
Restoration and shop areas are located in bays 21-32. This is where the many volunteers work daily to
restore the rolling stock in the museum’s collection. Visitors are given an opportunity to talk with
volunteers about this specialized work. Many of the volunteers were former Southern Railway employees
or descendants of former employees.
Bays 33-37 house more exhibits, focusing on railroads throughout North Carolina. The story is told through
a variety of multimedia, electronic, and participatory exhibits. Here one would find the prize cars in the
collection such as the "Dorius" and the "Loretto", private rail cars that once ran the tracks on the state.
Also, former segregated washrooms have been refurbished and serve as reminders to visitors of the drastic
differences compared to the modern facilities installed in this area. All 37 bays contribute captivating
and significant historical and cultural details about North Carolina’s railroad industry.
NCDOT has partnered with numerous organizations and local governments to rejuvenate and revitalize numerous
railroad stations, bringing them back to life and restoring their cultural and historical importance.
Additionally, the museum renovations tell an important story of Spencer Shops and the people and machines
that made this tremendous industrial facility possible. The roundhouse at the N.C. Transportation Museum
is the largest standing roundhouse still in existence in North America today. By preserving and enhancing
this facility, the state of North Carolina has taken great strides toward re-generating community pride
and morale into the town of Spencer, North Carolina, where our state’s industrial history is such an
important component. Such a legacy will instill generations of North Carolinians yet unborn with community
and state pride – both of which are of utmost importance in human development. It will also assure that
tangible documentation of North Carolina’s rich transportation history survives into perpetuity.