Volunteers keep NC Transportation Museum moving

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 9, 2014

“The signal for backing up is three short blasts on the horn,” explained Larry Brown, volunteer train engineer of 14 years at the N.C. Transportation Museum. With each pull of a lever, the train whistle bellowed over the vibrating rumble of the engine. And with that, the vintage diesel locomotive pulled out of Barber Junction Depot.
Now picture this same scene 65 years ago, when Spencer Shops — the site on which the museum is built — was at its peak. Halfway between Washington D.C. and Atlanta, Ga, Spencer was the ideal maintenance stop for all Southern Railway steam engines traveling the East Coast between the years 1900 and 1950. Twenty to 30 trains rolled in and out of Spencer Shops at any given time. Black steam, smoky smells, and a cacophony of sound from trains and people filled the air. As many as 3,000 employees worked each shift at the rail yard around the clock.
A lot has changed in the past 100 years, but some things have not. Like the love of trains. At the N.C. Transportation Museum, rail fans and families alike come to get a slice of history and the thrill of riding aboard a vintage train or roundhouse turntable. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from,” said Mark Brown, information and communications specialist for the museum, “Trains are cool.”
Seated on what was once a vital part of our country’s railroading infrastructure, today the Transportation Museum attracts visitors from all over the world. It offers insights into not only rail travel but aviation, maritime and automobiles as well. The museum’s historic depth, variety of exhibits, and full-throttle event schedule is what Brown calls “the full experience.”
“We definitely serve families with children of museum visiting ages,” said Brown. “But also for the rail fans from all over the country … we’re certainly one of the ones that a real rail fan is going to hit.”
In addition to a 25-minute train ride, visitors can tour a number of sites on the museum’s 57-acre property and see a variety of exhibits, many of them with North Carolina ties:
• Barber Junction Depot and Visitors Center (1898): Visitor information and ticket purchases.
• Wagons, Wheels and Wings in the Master Mechanic’s Office (1911): Highlights automobiles and wagons created in North Carolina and the surrounding areas. Exhibit also contains “Roads of North Carolina,” outlining how the state’s roadways were developed.
• Bumper to Bumper in the Flue Shop (1924): Features antique automobiles in a timeline starting with the steam engine, hand crank, and then fuel engine. Also contains the Divco Milk Truck exhibit.
• Bob Julian Roundhouse (1924): Once used for two- to three-day maintenance of steam locomotives, the Bob Julian Roundhouse is the largest remaining roundhouse in North America.
• Back Shop (1905): Recognized as the “Be Careful” building for the large words printed on its facade to constantly remind rail yard employees of the precarious nature of their work. The building was once used for longer maintenance of locomotives. Today it displays locomotives, a Piedmont Airlines exhibit, a full size replica of the Wright Brothers’ Flier, and a variety of restoration projects currently in progress at the museum.
In the mid 1950s, increased production of the diesel engine brought about the decline of steam locomotive-oriented Spencer Shops. Diesel trains could travel farther with less maintenance, and although Spencer Shops did its best to accommodate the new technology, the site became obsolete. Luckily for North Carolinians and train appreciators across the world, in the late 1970s Southern Railway donated the property to the state as a museum site.
Today the N.C. Transportation Museum faces new challenges in the form of drastic reductions in state funding. Two years ago, the museum was fully funded by the state government, operating on a $1.2 million annual budget. Over the past two years, state funding has been reduced to $300,000 a year, with the museum relying on itself for the balance of the budget. Two thirds of the museum staff was let go, shrinking the staff to just six full-time employees.
Once offering free admission to all, the museum was forced to begin charging admission in July of 2011. Despite current admission fees of $12 per adult and $8 per child (ages 3-12) with special pricing for events, the museum is “still an incredibly affordable option for the experience offered,” said Brown. The museum has seen a 15 percent-20 percent decline in visits, but has managed to maintain 70,000–80,000 visitors each year since state funding was reduced.
“We are still able to run the museum effectively at this point,” said Brown. “Gaps are filled with volunteers” and part-time or seasonal employees. And the museum’s roughly 200 volunteers couldn’t be more excited to fill the gaps. In fact, the museum’s entire train crew is comprised of volunteers.
Transportation Museum volunteers are broken into five groups: aviation; automotive; rail operations, including the brakemen, conductors and engineers; interpretive volunteers who greet, give tours, and work with the visitors; and junior volunteers, children ages 12 and up. For each position the museum provides all training at no cost — anything from learning how to perform oil changes on a vintage car to becoming trained as an engineer.
“If you’ve ever dreamed of operating a train, you can come here and fulfill your dream,” said LeAnne Johnson, historic site manager 2 and volunteer coordinator for the museum. “It’s the biggest draw. All you have to do is be willing to work hard and learn.”
Volunteers are required to donate 50 hours per year of their time. Beyond that, volunteers can tailor their days and volunteer schedules. Classes are held at the museum for various rail operations positions, during which volunteers are required to achieve various tiers of real-life operating experience hours as they rise from brakeman to conductor and, for those interested, to engineer.
Johnson started the junior volunteer program over her past five years with the museum. “It gives high school kids and younger kids who grew up coming here a chance to actually be a part of the museum, to learn different skill sets like how to talk to people,” said Johnson. “And it’s a really good opportunity just for them to grow into themselves.”
For many of the Transportation Museum volunteers, it’s so much more than volunteering. It’s an interest, a passion, and a hobby. “I guess it’s the whole package: The size of the trains, their history, the variety of steam engines and diesel engines,” engineer Larry Brown said. A retired chemistry professor from Appalachian State, Brown has volunteered for 14 years at the museum. “It’s the romance of railroading. That’s probably why everyone loves it.”
Volunteering is often a family affair at the museum. “The running joke here is that if you work here your whole family works here, and it’s true,” said Johnson.
Mike Garifo is a perfect example. He retired in 1994, moved to Lexington with his family, and began volunteering in train operations and as an interpretive volunteer almost 18 years ago. “I got the world’s biggest toy train set to play with,” Garifo said.
Garifo’s son, Steven Garifo, started as a junior volunteer, became an interpretive volunteer, and is now a part-time employee of the museum. Mike Garifo’s daughter, Jenny, followed a similar path, starting as a junior volunteer and becoming active in other volunteer capacities.
Especially in light of recent staff reductions, “we always need more volunteers,” said Johnson. Current volunteer needs include but are not limited to rail operations and interpretive volunteers.
“The volunteers created this museum, they keep it running, and they’ll continue to keep it running,” said Johnson. “We can’t survive without them.”
“Please support this museum,” added Garifo. “It’s a state gem, and it’s worth every bit.”