SPENCER — Once again, on Saturday, the unforgettable howl of a steam whistle echoed through downtown Spencer.
And the smell of coal smoke wafted among the buildings of the N.C. Transportation Museum, the former Southern Railway maintenance shops.
The occasion: the museum’s Spring Kick Off, an event organizers said was designed to “welcome the warmer weather” and officially start the season.
The museum’s diesel passenger train and the special Caboose Train, pulled by the LeHigh Valley steam engine, made the rounds of the historic site.
Other attractions, in addition to the museum exhibits and train rides, included arts and crafts and demonstrations by model railroaders and radio controlled model planes.
But when many people think of the Transportation Museum, they think trains.
Rafael Dalmau and Tania Matos drove down from Raleigh with their son, Sammy.
“He’s not quite 2 yet,” Matos said, “and he’s a choo choo lover.”
A fan of Thomas the Tank Engine, from “Thomas and Friends,” to be exact.
Though they said they didn’t know about the special event, they made the two-hour trip to ride trains and see the sights.
“We’re having a blast,” Dalmau said.
And they’re just the type of audience the museum is hoping to reach, said Roy Johnson, president of the board of directors of the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation.
Johnson, and board vice president Sturges Bryan, were at the museum Saturday.
They said the event had done well.
“We’ve been fortunate, in the years that we’ve done the spring kickoff, that we’ve always had good warm weather,” Johnson said.
The new year finds the historic site in a time of transition.
Larry Neal, interim executive director, is overseeing operations following the December departure of former executive director Sam Wegner.
The museum also just finished conducting a state-mandated five-year business plan study, Johnson said, which is now “in final draft form.”
The search for a new director is on hold until that study has been submitted, Johnson said.
In the past two years, the Transportation Museum’s funding has been cut from $1 million down to $300,000 this year.
The site has begun charging admission, which Bryan said is still reasonable compared to other attractions around the region.
And, Johnson said, the foundation will work to provide the remainder of the operating budget through individual and corporate donations, and grants when possible.
“It’s fair to say that the museum, as much as it possibly can, is operated so that it pays for much of its own operation,” Johnson said.
At same time, he said, there needs to be “some fundamental level of funding by the state to keep it strong moving forward.”
“That’s the reality,” he said. “You’ve got a very large site, with buildings in some cases nearing a hundred years old.”
Plus the cost of rebuilding, and maintaining, the exhibits themselves: rebuilding railway coaches, adding new paint and upholstery.
And making sure that both equipment and its operators pass federal inspections.
Johnson said that state money will replace the roof on one building, the powerhouse, which will eventually provide heating and air conditioning to the adjacent back shop, also under restoration.
Having the back shop open “would give us a lot more space for exhibits ... of transportation in NC in all of its forms,” Johnson said, “highway, aviation and maritime as well as rail.”
But although some foundations have been steady supporters, Johnson said, “It’s been difficult.”
Foundations and corporations, as well as individual donors, “have seen lots and lots of needs, and have limited resources to respond to those sorts of needs,” Johnson said.
Even so, Bryan said, the state’s Tourism Development Authority estimated the Transportation Museum’s overall economic impact at $10 million per year.
Visitors who come to Spencer for annual railway excursions and other events spend money on meals, gasoline and even hotel rooms, Bryan said.
“We’re very focused on being a major part of this region’s economy,” Johnson said.
Saturday’s event was a chance to publicize those events, which this year include overnight train excursions to Washington D.C. in April, and Charleston, S.C. in May – the first time in decades, Johnson said, that a passenger train will have made the run down the “R” line to Charleston.
“Some of these folks will ride because nobody has ridden some of those lines between Charlotte and Charleston,” Johnson said.
There are also the perennial crowds to see Thomas the Tank Engine, as well as other exhibits.
“The idea is, this is the day that says to the community and the world around us that we’re open for business again,” Johnson said.
Out on the rails, twin siblings Quinn and Maxwell Cornatzer, 3, sat up top in the cupola of a Southern Railway caboose as the steam engine’s whistle roared.
“I don’t think there’s anything more fun than sitting up in the caboose on a steam powered train,” said Mark Perrin, of Charlotte, who sat nearby.
The kids themselves gazed out the windows as the train began its 15-minute loop around the museum grounds – the first, organizers hope, of many who’ll follow them during this year’s tourist season.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.