Behind the Scenes a new way to view NC Transportation Museum

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 20, 2012

By Emily Ford
SPENCER — The N.C. Transportation Museum has pulled back the curtain, offering visitors a close-up look at rarely seen areas of what was once Southern Railway’s largest locomotive servicing hub.
For the first time in 25 years of operation, the museum is offering Behind the Scenes tours in January and February for $15.
Visitors will see historic buildings and restoration projects from a unique perspective during tours through the Back Shop, Roundhouse restoration bays and the private rail car of James Duke.
More than just a peek into areas normally off-limits to the public, Behind the Scenes pairs visitors with a guide who shares in-depth knowledge of rail history and museum artifacts.
When he led the tour recently, Brian Moffitt, interim manager of visitor services, even threw in funny stories about close encounters with black snakes and paranormal experiences with the ghostly inhabitants of the Roundhouse.
“You make that connection between the visitor and not only what they’re seeing, but the person behind it,” Moffitt said. “And you kind of tell that story and it gets them excited, and it may hit on something.”
Suddenly, visitors don’t see just an old firetruck parked in the Back Shop.
They hear about a truck that raced to a fire decades ago, delivering firefighters who climbed ladders and knocked holes in roofs and then had to step aside because African-Americans could not douse flames in the segregated South.
Behind the Scenes visitors don’t see just an odd airplane with the engine mounted on top, but an experimental aircraft built in a man’s backyard with a modified Mazda automobile engine that could take off and land in water.
The inventor was too scared to fly his folly, so he found a young man without a family to take it up on the first voyage, Moffitt said. The invention worked and was so brilliant, NASA called to learn more.
Anyone might notice staircases leading to elevated rooms in the Back Shop.
But during Behind the Scenes, visitors learn the rooms are actually restrooms, built above the shop floor to conserve space. And they learn the separate staircases led not to men’s and women’s bathrooms but to white and colored.
“Walk through on a normal day, and you don’t get that,” Moffitt said.
The tours, offered Thursday and Friday afternoons by reservation, are part of the museum’s stepped up efforts to raise money.
The state cut the museum’s funding in half to $576,000 and is scheduled to pull the plug entirely next year, requiring the museum to become self-supporting. In preparation, the museum started charging admission in July and attendance plummeted by 25 percent.
The museum has laid off nearly a third of its staff and furloughed all part-time employees. Once staffed by 18 full-time employees, the facility will operate in 2012 with just 11, including a new executive director expected to take office in February.
To raise the roughly $750,000 the leaner museum will need to operate each year, staff has to come up with new sources of revenue, like Behind the Scenes. Other efforts include marketing the facility as a venue for weddings and other events, expanded programming and more events like Thomas the Tank Engine.
While Behind the Scenes tours generate only $15 per visitor, Moffitt said the buzz they might create could be worth much more, attracting repeat visitors to the museum who may contribute artifacts or larger donations.
Moffitt said he hopes word spreads that tour-goers can marvel at how the massive Back Shop — three stories high and two football fields in length — was built in the waning years of the 1800s.
They will get an up-close look at the DC-3 Potomac Pacemaker undergoing cosmetic restoration in the Back Shop. The WWII era airplane was used for passenger travel by Piedmont Airlines and still bears the company’s logo.
The tour takes people under the platform in the last five bays of the Roundhouse, and they can see pits where workers serviced diesel locomotives.
Behind the Scenes also allows people to walk through the private rail car of industrialist and tobacco magnate James Buchanan Duke. The “Doris,” named for Duke’s daughter, is an example of the luxury rail travel enjoyed by the wealthy in the early 1900s.
Will this backstage pass attract visitors? Moffitt said he hopes the tours are so popular, the museum will extend them beyond February.
“Every dollar counts at this point,” he said. “My heart would literally break if they padlocked this place.”
A Catawba College history major, Moffitt started working at the museum as an intern 16 years ago. He said he uses one of Dr. Gary Freeze’s favorite mantras every day.
“Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” Moffitt said.
Facilities like the transportation museum have a story to tell, not just about the artifacts on display but also the thousands of people who worked there and innovators who built, operated or owned equipment that has been painstakingly restored, he said.
Behind the Scenes tours bring those stories to life.
“It’s a more intimate tour,” Moffitt said. “It’s a more intimate relationship between the museum and the visitor, so they feel like they are getting their money’s worth and enjoying it.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.