Flashback from 1987: Rainy morning at the Spencer roundhouse

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, July 3, 2017

Some pictures that I took early on still make me smile more so than others. This one, from a rain drenched Labor Day weekend 1987, is one of them. It’s the memory of a turning point.

The Kodachrome slide depicts 1926 Buffalo Creek & Gauley 2-8-0 No. 4, one of the early 1960s last regular steam stars, in drag as “Southern Railway No. 604” building pressure just outside the Spencer roundhouse for the first scheduled on-site train ride in the history of the N.C. Transportation Museum. It was the transition from a static museum to an operating museum.

Now for the back story. Rain was pouring down the entire weekend, putting a damper on the museum’s inaugural train ride. No. 4, reinvented as No. 604 to stand-in for a long-gone local Consolidation the previous year, had been fixed up the previous year by a group of Southern Railway shop retirees. She had been at the museum for about 10 years, and would only run for three years before boiler problems would sideline her for an overhaul that would see her go back into service in 1992. That, too, would be a short-lived restoration as the engine last steamed in 2001, and was sold to the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley in 2015. That last repatriated her to West Virginia and put her in place for a new starring role in 2019 as the power on the restored Chesapeake & Ohio line between Cass and Durbin.

Standing to the side, admiring it all, is Tony Marsico, a piano tuner in Charlotte, N.C., by day, and a dedicated volunteer on nights and weekends. Tony was one of the original weekend warriors –  non railroaders who came to provide free help. Before that, it was all railroad retirees. The group was about a dozen then; it’s in the hundreds today.

Visible in the foreground and background is the Spencer roundhouse, a 37-bay structure that was built in 1924, renovated in 1996, and serves today as the shop and main display hall for the railroad museum. In recent years, it has grown in fame and stature as the home to the Norfolk Southern heritage unit event, the Streamliners at Spencer event, and the restoration of Norfolk & Western No.611.  At the time, it was a mess with buckled wood block floors, crumbling concrete, and very few windows that vandals or time hadn’t broken. Tracks were missing. Everything was going against this building and place.

To the side is fireman Lloyd Morris’ Ford Mustang. He and H.S. “Hot Shot” Williams served as No. 4’s only engine crew for the first few years of operation until the regular operation of the train meant more crews would be needed. Lloyd passed away years ago. He and the original railroaders who turned the museum around are sadly all gone now.

And my perch? I’m standing on the back of the tender of an Illinois Central 0-8-0, which was inside the shop for a cosmetic restoration that would turn it into another imposer, Southern Railway 1894. In 1991, the engine was traded to Tanglewood Park near Winston-Salem for Southern Railway 2-8-0 No. 542.

This slide always makes me smile because nobody else thought about taking a photo from this angle, and everything in this view is gone or changed. It’s another reminder to catch what you can when you can because it will be gone before you know it. Everything is in transition, always, whether you realize it or not.

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