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All the live-long day: Campers test out life on the railroad

SPENCER — As mid-June temperatures crept ever higher Thursday morning, a group of nine young adults diligently worked on three restoration projects at the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

One trio was sanding and repainting a Railway Express Agency baggage cart. Another was straightening a twisted crank of a hand-pumped track inspection car, with the final group sandblasting an old railroad traffic signal.

All nine paid to be given these hands-on experiences, part of a five-day Next Generation Railroaders’ Boot Camp hosted by the museum.

“The idea is to give them a taste of what either working for a railroad or volunteering at a railroad or transportation museum is all about,” said camp director Tyler Trahan.

The camp started off with a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum, both exhibits and “all of the cool rusty stuff you don’t normally get to see,” said Trahan.

From there, boot campers learned about collections and artifact management, the “why” behind museums’ desires to preserve old stuff.

And then it was time to get their hands dirty. Trahan said the camp was originally meant to be a short sampling of an experience.

“When I originally thought about the camp, the shop time was just supposed to be one of the many things,” he said. “But it’s kind of turned into the focus of the camp in a way that I have been really pleased with.”

Daniel Peck said the museum always has a lot of projects like these on which to work. The trouble, said Trahan, is to find options that could be completed or near completion during the campers’ stay.

By Saturday, Trahan estimates the baggage cart will be ready for display in front of the museum’s Barber Junction. The hand-pumped car will be back in service, and the signal should be ready for further electrical repairs.

Camp participants all have a passion and enthusiasm for locomotives and are using the experience to prepare for the workforce or for volunteering.

“For me, I’m leaning toward learning some sort of trade that I could also be able to use in a shop setting,” said Ethan Vogel of Virginia Beach, Virginia, speaking of welding or electrical work. “… I want to learn a trade I could use commercially as well as for preservation.”

For camper Tanner Bowman of Brown County, Indiana, the camp is a continuation of a lifelong love of the museum and locomotives.

“Once camp’s over, I want to come back. … It’s a pretty cool experience,” he said. “Where else can you work next to machines that are a couple of hundred years old and have so much history and are just so much fun to be around?”

Many fun experiences are yet to come for campers. Today, they’ll learn how to repair tracks before learning how to drive speeder or track-maintenance cars.

If the hand-pump cart is repaired, they’ll also take it for a spin.

On Saturday, the last day of camp, the campers will each be given a 15- to 20-minute turn at the controls of a diesel locomotive — under the careful supervision of a locomotive engineer, of course.

“We can do things with this age group that we could never dream of doing with younger kids,” said Trahan. “… This is such a unique opportunity to get young people doing hands-on, dirty work. You can’t do this outside of a transportation museum.”

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