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Kevin Cherry: A fast-track year for Transportation Museum

It has been an extraordinary year for the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

Our visitation is up. How could it not be given our spectacular four-day, international Streamliner event? The Rowan County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau calculated that this one event sold out every hotel room in the county and added more than $1.8 million to the local economy over its run. Add to that the museum’s most successful “Day Out With Thomas” in years (with ticket sales up 24 percent over the previous year). The renewed interest in the little steam engine’s visit was due in large part to the participation of Thomas’ buddy, green-painted Percy, a “cheeky saddletank engine,” and always a kid favorite.

We also sold out three train excursions, one in the spring to Washington, D.C., and two in the fall to Charlottesville, Va., and Toccoa, Ga. Our spring train show, featuring rail memorabilia, model trains and related materials, was also a hit with 11 percent more visitors than any of its previous years. Added together, our various antique and collector car shows did better in 2014 than in recent years, too. This year also saw the most successful Boy Scout event in the museum’s history, with nearly 600 scouts camping out on the museum grounds during Railcamp 2014. This success has led us to expand “Scouts Take Flight,” our Boy Scout aviation camp this spring. And, if you have been through Spencer or past the North Carolina Transportation Museum these last few nights, you will see that we are continuing to bring the crowds to the museum across this holiday season with the multi-week Polar Express Train Ride. Every available ticket has been sold. Yes, we can hear the bell all over our old steam repair facility.

Increased donations this year also continued to enhance our artifact collections. Our supporters gave us an excellent transportation-related book collection, a 1965 Carolina Blue Mustang convertible, a 1934 iron-wheeled Farmall tractor, an 1890s goat sulky (a kid’s toy cart in more ways than one), a 1959 DIVCo milk truck, a 1914 Buick, a boxcar from the Aberdeen and Rockfish Railroad, Piedmont Airlines memorabilia, rail tools, and a late 19th-century buggy makers bench. We also received a 1918 Depot Hack and a 1966 Ford fire truck that once was used to protect Cannon Mills. Both of these last two vehicles will now be employed as teaching objects to be offer rides and to be driven about the site—and those are just a few of the many artifact gifts that came to us this year.

We have also been working on the museum’s “every day visitor experience” by giving museum-goers more to do during their visits. We have established a “Caboose Plaza,” which invites visitors to climb through a displayed caboose, and we have installed an excellent, interactive outdoor signal exhibit that allows visitors to set the lights flashing and the bells ringing with a push of a button. Our staff are also going into costume more often to help capture the attention of all our visitors but especially the young ones. We have revived the popular behind-the scenes tours of our facilities, and through a special partnership with the Virginia Museum of Transportation, we have been helping to restore the iconic streamliner 611 steam engine, giving special tours of this amazing engine while creating an exhibit out of the restoration process, itself.

We are still on track to have the first phase of the Powerhouse restoration completed by the end of summer 2015. We hope to soon give it back its roof, windows, doors and floors while stabilizing the walls.  While it’s not as dramatic, we’ve also cleaned up and organized our behind-the-scenes spaces and set up more areas that can be rented to help supplement our budget. Speaking of budget, the total annual budget for the museum (including all onsite private, non-profit and state activities) is now approximately $2.5 million, of which $300,000 comes from appropriation. (This does not include funds for major repair and renovations.) These figures show that we are not only good stewards of the state’s history, we are also pretty good stewards of the state’s funds.

No summary of the North Carolina Transportation Museum’s activities would be complete without tipping a hat to the volunteers who keep the place running. They work the gift shop, give tours and run the trains. They repair the rails, restore the rolling stock, mow the grass and help with kids crafts. For the next couple of weeks, a number of them will be serving hot cocoa, cutting flips along the platform in elf costumes and waving like crazy at every passing passenger car—because the first rule of Spencer is, “EVERYBODY WAVES AT TRAINS!” Our volunteers are good people doing priceless work in every sense.

During the upcoming year, while we will continue to present the great special events for which we are known. We will also continue to work on the “everyday” experience. We will concentrate our efforts on providing more for younger visitors to do no matter when they might be visiting, giving them more rail cars to walk through and more drivers’ seats to sit in. We will develop better orientation and guidance across the site’s 57 acres, and  we will continue to catch up on our maintenance backlog, giving our historic site and museum a general “spiffing up” while keeping it true to its industrial nature. We are working on making every day a special day at the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

If you’ve not visited the North Carolina Transportation Museum in a while, come see us! If you are looking for a place to volunteer, come see us! If you have a special piece of North Carolina Transportation history that should be preserved, come see us! Just come see us!

We are moving in the right direction and picking up speed. Thanks to all of our donors, volunteers and staff for a job well done! All aboard for 2015!

Dr. Kevin Cherry is interim executive director of the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

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