NC Transportation Museum Rail Days

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 3, 2012

By Emily Ford
SPENCER — One accessory outnumbered engineer caps Saturday at the Great Southeastern Rail Days Festival — cameras.
From pocket-sized point-and-shoots to professional-grade Nikons and Canons worth thousands of dollars, nearly everyone at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer had a camera.
The festival continues today from noon to 5 p.m.
“My motto is, shoot like a fool,” said David Thompson, who, with his wife Carol Anne, traveled from Hilton Head Island to spend two days in Spencer photographing trains. “It’s digital photography. It’s free. If I get 10 or 12 good images, I’ll be happy.”
Both Thompsons lugged cameras, tripods, lenses, filters and flashes throughout the museum, which hosted the new incarnation of the former Rail Days to attract more people in a tough budget year.
Like many photographers at the festival, the Thompsons are members of a camera club and heard about the event as an opportunity to capture unique images from railroading’s golden age.
They were especially looking forward to the evening and nighttime photo shoots Saturday, when museum staff recreated famous railroad scenes after-hours with special lighting. Photographers paid more for the unusual chance to take pictures of trains in the dark of night.
George Albertson of New Jersey said he travels across the country lining up locomotives in the viewfinder of his Sony. He and his wife, Bettie, made their third trip to Spencer Shops so George could photograph steam engines, his favorite.
“There’s just something about the atmosphere,” he said.
Museum employees said they hope the festival and other upcoming events will help make up an anticipated shortfall in state dollars.
The state cut the museum’s $1 million funding in half this year, forcing the 29-year-old facility to start charging admission for the first time. Attendance fell by more than 25 percent, and the museum eliminated seven positions.
The state was scheduled to cut all funding in July, but aggressive lobbying by the museum’s nonprofit foundation has generated support in Raleigh. Preliminary state budgets propose giving the museum $300,000 in the coming year, but that’s $100,000 less than museum supporters had hoped for.
Can bigger-and-better events like this weekend’s festival, a June 16 excursion and the Fourth of July Norfolk Southern Heritage Unit Family Portrait — potentially the largest event ever held at the museum — make up the difference?
“We’re going to find out,” spokesman Mark Brown said.
The museum has pulled out all the stops this season with major events.
“Especially for rail fan photographers, it’s caught fire,” Brown said.
The museum has already sold 700 tickets for the once-in-a-lifetime heritage event July 3 and 4, which will feature 20 locomotives painted in the original color schemes of railway companies that no longer exist. Many of those tickets have gone to rail fan photographers as far away as Canada and Europe.
“We have to pay our bills, which means we have to bring in income,” Executive Director Sam Wegner said. “One of best ways to do that is to make it worth their while to pay enhanced admission fees.”
Today’s festival costs $20 for adults and $15 for children, with kids aged two and under free. Entertainment includes three train rides, diesel cab rides, motorcar rides, music, magic, railroad artist Andy Fletcher, tours of private rail cars and more.
The event celebrates the history of what really built the nation, expanding the country westward and moving materials during two world wars, said Brian Moffitt, education programming coordinator.
Visitors to the museum experience that heritage, including seeing a live steam locomotive, he said.
“You can hear it hissing behind me,” Moffitt said. “It’s like it’s a breathing creature.”
Tripp Robins, 5, could hardly wait to get to the Roundhouse with his family, who came from Suffolk, Va., and Charlotte for the event.
“He lives, eats, sleeps, breathes and loves trains,” mother Ruth Robins said.
Grandmother Judy Boyd heard about the event through her camera club and was photographing trains as fast as Tripp was running to them.
A group of friends from Warrenton, Norlina and Cary came to Spencer for the first time. The men, all African-American, grew up on trains and recalled riding in segregated cars in the 1940s and ’50s.
When they rode from south to north, they could not enter a train’s dining car until it passed the 14th Street bridge in Washington, D.C.
Lyman Henderson, Cliff Alston, Jesse Williams and James Parnell marveled at the size of the museum and extent of vintage rolling stock.
“This brings back memories,” Henderson said.
The men turned to begin exploring locomotives in the Roundhouse, cameras in hand.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.