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Historic Spencer Shops
N.C. TRANSPORTATION MUSEUM
A bird's-eye view of the Southern Railway's Spencer Shops in the 1940s. The facility employed thousands of people during its operating period from 1896 to the 1960s. Spencer Shops is now the site of the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

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The North Carolina Transportation Museum at Spencer Shops

S pencer Shops, which opened in 1896, was Southern Railway's largest repair facility. For years Southern employed between 2,500 and 3,000 workers in the Rowan County shops. The conversion from steam to diesel meant the demise of the facility. Southern began to lay off people through the 1950s; in 1960 the main shops were closed. The facility was completely shut down by 1979.

In the 1970s staff members of the Division of Archives and History envisioned a transportation museum but were hampered by problems of location and building size. The transfer of the Spencer property to the state gave the agency a prime location for such a facility, one convenient to travelers on Interstate 85. On July 1, 1977, the General Assembly authorized funds for the purchase of land and the stabilization of buildings. In September 1977, Southern Railway president L. Stanley Crane transferred 3.27 acres and three buildings at Spencer to the state of North Carolina. During the ensuing two years, Southern Railway donated the remaining fifty-seven acres and numerous buildings to the state.

The acquisition of Spencer Shops constituted a leap of faith on the part of state officials. Full-scale development of the massive complex would require the investment of millions in public and private funds. In 1978 a master plan was unveiled for the site. Hundreds of hours were devoted to removing debris and vegetation at the neglected facility. To assist the project, legislators in 1979 provided $1.25 million, the largest appropriation to a state historic site up to that time. Between July 1978 and June 1980, nearly four thousand people visited Spencer, even though it did not officially open until March 1983.

The first major exhibit—People, Places, and Times—opened in the former Master Mechanic's Office in 1983. The display covered the evolution of North Carolina's inland transportation. In 1990 an exhibit on automobiles titled Bumper to Bumper was placed in the former Flue Shop. In 1996, the centennial year of the shops, the Robert Julian Roundhouse opened to the public with approximately two dozen railroad locomotives and cars, more than five thousand artifacts, and a theater. The Salisbury Post referred to the roundhouse as "the crown jewel in an $8 million renovation effort." Upon the opening of the Roundhouse, the site's name was changed to the North Carolina Transportation Museum, which better reflected the diversifying interpretations. In 2000 Spencer Shops was the second most visited state historic site with 125,194 visitors. By 2001 the major focus was the rehabilitation of the Back Shop, which covers 200 yards in length, for exhibits. The projected cost was $30 million, with significant grants coming from the Department of Transportation and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancements Act (ISTEA).

Spencer Shops' biggest assets are its nonprofit support group, the North Carolina Transportation History Foundation (formerly Corporation), and its corps of volunteers. The foundation, started in 1977, helps to raise funds and to obtain artifacts and restore them. Over the years it has acquired more than two million dollars' worth of artifacts. Volunteers, among them many former Southern Railway employees, have helped to restore and maintain railroad locomotives and cars. They also serve as docents and operate train rides.

Dennis F. Daniels
Research Branch

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