The Spencer Shops, now home to the North Carolina Transportation Museum, played an important role in the economy of Rowan County from their inception in 1896 through World War ll. At its peak, the railroad shops employed between 2,000 and 2,500 people, many of whom lived in Spencer. The Town of Spencer was founded to house railroad employees and grew along with the railroad shops for decades. The significance of the facility to this area cannot be overstated. The Spencer Shops, sited midway between Washington and Atlanta, were Southern Railway Company’s most important railroad repair facility. The facility was “state of the art” from the beginning—with electric lights and all the modern conveniences of the era. It was continually improved and added onto until diesel powered engines rendered the steam engine obsolete. Spencer Shops scaled back in the ‘50s, fully closing July 1960.
The buildings fell into disrepair. Southern Railway Company gave the site to the State of North Carolina in the late ‘70s. While several of the original facilities were demolished, the remaining buildings from the complex, especially the Back Shop and the Roundhouse, are considered the most important example of transportation history in the state. The facility was landmarked and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
It seems fitting that the derelict shops became the North Carolina Museum of Transportation; its first exhibit opened in 1983. The Transportation Museum gradually restored the remaining buildings including the impressive 37 stall Roundhouse. The newly renovated Back Shop won an HSF Preservation Award in 2017. The Museum has been an excellent steward of the Spencer Shops—its buildings, its trains and its history. It will be on OctoberTour for the first time in 2018—tour goers will be able to take a trolley ride through the facility and visit any or all of its exhibits.
Photo by Sean Meyers