Let’s go

Get on the Santa Train

Head up to Spencer and visit historicN.C. Transportation Museum

December 17, 2012 

All aboard for the Santa Train!

My sister came to town for a long weekend and asked to see some of the area. Since she and I both like museums and trains, I suggested we visit the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer, N.C. I said Santa would be there, and she said, “Never too old to enjoy a day with Santa!”

We arrived early and decided to take the train ride before we visited the exhibits. The Visitor Center is located in the Barber Junction (NC) Depot, which was moved to this site in 1980. It’s an excellent example of late 1800 depots with its turrets and painted clapboard. Advance tickets are strongly suggested and are available through the Transportation Museum website.

The 57-acre museum, which has 18 structures, in its heyday was the site of the Southern Railway Co.’s largest steam locomotive servicing facility. SRC was owned by J.P. Morgan, who chose this site because it was between two major terminals, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

Open all year with special rides, tours and other events, this month’s highlight is the Santa Train.

The Santa Train has a varied schedule. During the 25-minute Saturday and Sunday rides, children will receive candy canes or oranges (a SRC tradition) from Santa and his helpers. The daily program also includes a hands-on holiday craft to take home and access to all the transportation exhibits.

The Saturday night program includes the 25-minute ride, plus cookies and cocoa with Santa, a holiday story, a chance to write Santa a postcard (which will reach Santa via the railway mail car) and a personal photo opportunity with the jolly man himself.

Soon, we heard the whistle of an approaching train. The line to board cued up. Once the train pulled into the station, we boarded one of the four refurbished passenger cars. Not sure the direction the train was going, we chose facing seats. Christmas music was playing and the air crackled with excitement. The music was stopped by a voice announcing Santa was arriving and was being escorted by the police. Looking out the window, we saw him waving to everyone as the 1930s police car, with siren wailing, pulled up to the depot. With Santa on board, we left the depot at a leisure 15 mph.

One of Santa’s helpers, Chloe Goho, said close to 5,000 children are expected to take the ride this month. (If you count the “big kids” the number jumps to 15,000.) The loop around the property gave Santa a chance to say hello to everyone, including me. He said I looked familiar and then he looked a bit closer and said “Yep, you are on the naughty list!” (Which may explain why I did not get a candy cane.)

The train makes two stops: one at the Master Mechanic’s Office where the Gift Station is located, and access to the exhibit buildings begins; the other, at Barber Junction Depot. We opted for the Mechanic’s office. I was taken with the gift store and so was every child in there, including my sister. She got a Thomas the Train tattoo. This place was packed with everything train. There was a great future engineer outfit, complete with hat, that intrigued me but they did not have my size.

Next to the gift shop is the first of the transportation exhibits. Here I saw my first velocipede (the bicycle with the very large front tire). Here also is where the children make crafts. On this day, it was ornaments with stickers. Every week the craft changes.

The main attraction at this museum is the 37-stall Bob Julian Roundhouse, with its working 100-foot eclectic turntable. At one time, SRC employed more than 3,000 people to work at this facility. Wages were not great, but still better than comparable positions in the textile mills. The round house design made it possible to move steam locomotives from stall to stall, depending on what repair needed to be completed.

Visitors can take a “ride” on the turntable, which from what I could see, seemed to please the big kids maybe a bit more than the little ones.

After a short stop inside the orientation room where maps, descriptive reading and a short film are available, we stepped out to the cavernous roundhouse. For a moment visitors get a chance to envision what it must have been like to work on the SRC steam engines.

Today, most of the stalls house close to 40 restored locomotives, private parlor cars (take a peak in the windows to see how railroad executives and their families traveled before RVs or limousines) a railway mail car, and a hospital car that last saw action during the Korean War. The N.C. Transportation Museum is more than just a museum, much refurbishing of different vehicles, planes and trains still goes on here; a special tour called Wings, Wheels and Rails is available that gives visitors a chance to see, up close and personal, the inner workings of the roundhouse and the exhibits.

Adjacent to the roundhouse is the aviation exhibit. Among the NC historic transportation moments is the full size replica of the Wright Flyer: 21 foot length, a 40 foot wingspan and weighing just over 600 pounds.

What once housed the Flue shop now showcases antique and collectible automobiles. In the foyer we took a moment to look at an extensive display of Tonka toy type earth moving equipment. I admit to thinking back to when a cousin and I played for hours with our own earth moving equipment in the “dirt pile” behind his house. Inside, among the automobiles, many manufactured in the Carolinas, I was taken with the intriguing ’61 Chevy Corvair Rampside Pick up.

Time passed quickly. Before we knew it, two more Santa trains came through before we felt we had seen all that we could.

Some younger children might get a bit restless with all the looking and not doing, but for lovers of anything to do with transportation, especially trains, this is a great place to spend a few hours. Meeting Santa only made it sweeter.

Want to go?

Where: The N.C. Transportation Museum, 411 S. Salisbury Ave., Spencer, N.C.

Phone: 704-636-2889

Online: www.nctrans.org

Admission: Ranges from $5 to $15, depending on the time of year and event

Directions: I-85 north to Exit 79. At top of ramp, turn left; follow signs for left turn onto Salisbury Ave. Museum is on the left.

Santa Train Schedule

Dec. 15-16 and Dec. 22-23; Trains start at 10 a.m.

Tickets: Adults, $14; senior/active military, $12; children (3-12), $10.

Santa Night Train schedule: Advance tickets only.

Dec. 15, 21, 22: Train runs 5:30, 6:30 and 7:30 (if available)

Tickets: adults, $15; children (3-12), $12.

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