Here in the capital city, we are fortunate to visit wonderful museums in town. However, one of our favorite state museums is a two-hour drive away in Spencer, halfway between Winston-Salem and Charlotte off I-85. The North Carolina Transportation Museum is home to one of the largest roundhouses ever built along with a vintage automobile collection and historical air travel collection.
The site was once the the Spencer Shops, the Southern Railway Company’s steam locomotive servicing facility. The Spencer Shops opened in 1896, employed several thousand workers in its heyday, and closed by 1960 after diesel engines replaced steam. The grounds were eventually donated to the state of North Carolina.
Much of the museum is outdoors in large, open-air buildings so we prefer to visit in spring or fall when the temperatures aren’t extreme. This review and the accompanying photos were taken on Saturday, March 11, 2017.
The museum sells tickets for a small fee. Double the ticket price to include the half-hour train ride. We recommend this narrated train ride for first-timers as it travels through the site, allowing an overview of the grounds before exploring on foot. We timed our departure from home so that we would arrive in time for the first train ride of the day at 10:30 AM.
After our train ride, we ate our packed lunch in the car because the picnic pavilion was too chilly, but there’s plenty of space there for a nice, outdoor lunch.
Bypassing the gift shop, our first stop was the Flue Shop which is now home to the automobile collection. This building is a very well-themed collection of antique and classic cars and trucks dating back to the 1900’s.
The majority of the museum is housed in the Bob Julian roundhouse. With 37 servicing bays, it is one of the largest ever built. It is now home to several dozen locomotives and train cars, and an aviation exhibit including a full-size replica of the Wright brothers’ flyer. Standing beside these huge steam engines is awe-inspiring!
Most trains cannot be boarded, but a few have steps to the conductor’s cab. There is also a WWII U.S. Army hospital car and, my favorite, a post office mail car. Another car of interest is the French Friendship Train. Following World War II, France gave each state a train car filled with gifts of gratitude and this was the car given to North Carolina.
The roundhouse includes other fascinating exhibits such as the control display (the boys loved flipping all the switches!), roundhouse clerk’s office, a scale model of the Spencer Shops as it appeared when it was operational, and exhibits about African American workers’ experiences during segregated times.
When we finished at the roundhouse, we explored a few train cars outside on the way back to the parking lot – a caboose, cotton boxcar, and educational train car.
We were pulling away in the car by 3:00 PM and were home in time for dinner. The North Carolina Transportation Museum is wonderfully presented and a great place for kids and adults alike to enjoy a day marveling at steam behemoths of the past.