Folks flock to Rail Days Festival
By Mark Wineka
SPENCER ó Never go to the Family Rail Days Festival at the N.C. Transportation Museum without riding the rails.
Don and Anne Sebastian settled into an open-air passenger car Saturday and gave 4-year-old grandson Jacob a window seat.
“There’s a lot of history here, and a lot of people don’t realize how far back this goes,” Don said before the train rocked to a start.
Don Sebastian can’t help but be nostalgic when he visits the museum grounds, where Rail Days will continue from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.
Thousands of men used to work here in the days when Spencer Shops served as Southern Railway’s major steam locomotive repair facility between Washington and Atlanta.
And one of those men was Sebastian’s father, Walter, who worked at least 40 years at the Roundhouse. Don grew up in Spencer, when the shops were central to everyone’s lives.
As the museum passenger train made its trip around the grounds Saturday, everything seemed to stir a memory for Sebastian.
At lunchtime, workers would play horseshoes on the hill next to the Master Mechanic’s office.
Over there, across the street from the Roundhouse, used to be the YMCA, which stayed open practically all night.
Southward, Don recalled how he and friends would make elaborate tunnels in the mountains of hay stored on the shops site. They did, that is, until railroad detectives caught them.
Their punishment ó the worst thing of all ó was that the detectives called their fathers.
In the steam engine days, Sebastian said, smoke and cinders blew all across town. Women in Spencer would time the hanging of their wash by how much smoke was in the air, Sebastian said.
He and Anne later had a home on Hudson Avenue. They bought the house next to them and eventually tore it down to salvage the wood.
Cinders from the steam engine days were accumulated in the house’s attic, Sebastian said.
You only learn these kinds of things riding a train.
The Transportation Museum enjoyed one of its biggest Rail Days crowds ever Saturday, buoyed by Norfolk Southern Corp.’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Spencer Yard at Linwood.
“It has looked at times like a Thomas (the Tank) day,” said Mark Brown, communications specialist for the museum.
Norfolk Southern employees from throughout the region ended up being invited to the Rail Days, which featured live music; the latest Norfolk Southern equipment on display; a chili cookoff; a Joyce Fallon book reading, elaborate model train displays, re-railing exhibitions; and motor car, passenger train, caboose train and turntable rides.
As always, the museum’s permanent transportation exhibits and impressive inventory of locomotive and rail car stock also were on display.
As a project for Senior Girl Scouts, 16-year-old Katie Collins of Moore County devised a scavenger hunt for the 17 boy and girl scouts who made the trip with her.
“She’s a pretty sharp kid, they all are,” said Scout Leader Gina Barber. “I’m lucky.”
Some of the things on Collins’ scavenger hunt:
– Find the locomotive that was built for the Russian Railroad but was never delivered due to the 1917 Revolution.
– Find the 10-wheeler locomotive built in June 1913.
– Find the tracks that turn.
– Find the locomotive designed for steep grades, sharp curves and bad track conditions.
– Find the locomotive built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1926.
As she waited near the gift shop, Collins had yet to hear from anyone who had found all 15 things on her list.For the Boy Scouts who made the trip, Rail Days helped in earning a railroad merit badge.
The model train displays held the interest of 7-year-old Kate Chalker of Foxfire Village.
“I knew it would be right up her line,” her mother, Marilyn, said of bringing her daughter to Rail Days. “This is her birthday present, and she loves trains.”
Last Christmas, all Kate wanted as a present was a train set. So Saturday’s festival was a hit.
“I would definitely recommend it,” Marilyn Chalker said. “It’s a good deal.”
Rail Days also were a birthday present for Jay Miller of Wake County from his twin daughters Johanna of Greensboro and Stephanie of Charlotte. When he arrived at Johanna’s house in Greensboro Saturday morning, he didn’t know what the girls had planned.
The family piled in the car with Jay as the driver. “I just followed directions,” he said.
He was happy when the trip ended at the N.C. Transportation Museum.
“I just happen to be a train buff,” he said, waiting to board the passenger train.
His Saturday train ride reminded Don Sebastian of the day when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral train stopped in Salisbury on its way to Georgia.
He saw FDR’s coffin from the top of his uncle’s shoulders.
“That was the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at the depot,” he said.
Because he worked for Southern, Don’s father had a rail pass that allowed his family members to ride for free.
As a kid, Don Sebastian used to ride the train by himself to visit his aunt and uncle in Charlotte.
“That was as big thrill,” he said.
The kind of thrill people seem to find at Rail Days.