Up Front: January 2010

Ticket to the past

Arriving via vintage firetruck, Santa has boarded the train, now crawling along one of the tracks that once lined this place like the wrinkles the sun etches on a farmer’s face. Fat men, even those endowed by magic, are not known for speed, especially with kids clinging as camera-clutching moms plead for one last pose. As he slowly maneuvers his girth down the aisle of the restored passenger car, all eyes are on him. All except mine. I’m watching the ghosts outside. They aren’t of Christmas past, or any other tense, but of the workdays that for more than 60 years came between.

My wife had talked me into taking our grandsons to ride the Santa Train at the North Carolina Transportation Museum. It’s on the site of Spencer Shops, the Southern Railway’s largest steam-locomotive repair complex. Opened near Salisbury in 1896, it employed nearly 3,000 people at its peak: boilermakers, machinists, blacksmiths, pipefitters, electricians and other craftsmen and laborers. For many years, the town — like the shops, named for the man J.P. Morgan picked to run his rail empire — had the highest per capita income in the state.

The train, slowing to pace Santa’s progress, slides past the brick bulk of the back shop. Nearly 600 feet long, once the largest industrial building in North Carolina, it’s where they overhauled locomotives. Ahead is the roundhouse, its 37 stalls fed by a 100-foot turntable, where routine maintenance was performed. In the days of steam, railroads switched engines every 150 miles for refueling, inspection and, if need be, repairs. Roughly halfway between Washington and Atlanta, Spencer Shops stayed busy.

“For every thundering freight train wheeling textiles, tobacco and furniture out of North Carolina, hundreds labored in the cavernous Spencer back shop,” wrote Duane Galloway and Jim Wrinn in Southern Railway’s Spencer Shops: 1896-1996. “For every one of the 22 daily passenger trains rolling along the Southern Railway main line between Washington and Atlanta, scores of men (and sometimes women) toiled in the smoky, noisy roundhouse or any one of the buildings scattered around the Spencer Shops.”

They describe the scene around 1920: “Thick smoke from hundreds of puffing locomotives and the power house’s huge smokestacks constantly bathed the shop buildings and drifted over the town. ... In the evenings the smoke combined with the steady hum of machines and the shops’ powerful electric lights to produce an eerie scene. Underneath the smoke, noise and lights, the constant movement of men, rail cars and locomotives caused the shops and freight yard to resemble an ant colony at work.”

But by World War II, its days were numbered, doomed by the same force that continues to kill and rebuild industry: technology. In 1941, the first diesel locomotive arrived at Spencer Shops. By the middle of 1953, the Southern was totally diesel, the first major railroad to become so. More powerful and cheaper to run, diesel engines also required less maintenance. Work shifted to other places, and only 75 workers remained in 1960. For all practical purposes, Spencer Shops shut down, its buildings crumbling into ruins when the railroad — which would become part of Norfolk Southern Corp. — donated them to the state in the ’70s.

But the spirit of the past lives on, not only in the relics housed in brick and steel that would have turned to rubble and rust. As Santa greets Jackson and Reid, his helpers hand out oranges and candy canes, a Southern Railway Christmas tradition. During the Depression, children lined the tracks, awaiting trainmen who tossed out the treats. For some, it was the only gift they got.