An interlude in Hamlet

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 11, 2021

The big station at the onetime Seaboard Air Line crossroads of Hamlet, N.C., is a treasured local landmark. Kevin P. Keefe
A year ago, as I rode Amtrak’s Silver Star down through the Carolinas, I made sure I was awake at 11:18 p.m. as the train pulled into Hamlet, N.C., on time, for what turned out to be the outstanding visual impression of the trip. 

Seen through my economy bedroom window, one of the largest train stations you could ever expect to see in a small town emerged from the gloom. A “witch’s hat” conical roof loomed over the L-shaped building as a handful of passengers mingled in the darkness under its spacious verandas. As the train eased out of town, I vowed to come back and get a closer look.

I got that chance last week, on a visit with my friend Kevin McKinney, founder of Passenger Train Journal and today a columnist on the magazine. Kevin lives near Southern Pines these days, just 29 miles up the former Seaboard Air Line (SAL) main line, so it was easy to talk him into meeting me in Hamlet for a brief tour. 

As you drive into Hamlet, you’re struck by how much the old SAL station dominates the downtown landscape, with its outsize presence at the southeast end of Main Street. The building seems to declare “this is a Seaboard town.” Walking up to it, I couldn’t help but think of Grand Trunk Western’s depot at Durand, Mich., another small place that seems to genuflect to its monarch by the railroad tracks. Hamlet creates the same impression.

On a May 1962 night, passengers and carts await the arrival of the next train at Hamlet. J. Parker Lamb, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection 
Hamlet’s station has great bona fides. The Seaboard constructed it in 1900 in the flamboyant Queen Anne style, a popular architectural trend around the turn of the century. It was designed to serve as both a passenger depot and a division headquarters, hence its impressive size in comparison with the town. Railroad officials generally worked on the second floor, and passenger and baggage services — including Jim Crow segregated facilities — were spread out across the first floor.

Hamlet was a strategic and busy location for the Seaboard, in the postwar years serving as the junction of the Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia divisions, as well as home to a major classification yard and locomotive shops northeast of the depot. Seaboard lines radiated from the junction in five directions. 

Although most of the passenger trains came through at night, the depot hosted some mighty famous names. The most glittering among them were the New York–Miami Silver Meteor and Silver Star, names so resonant that Amtrak saw fit to keep them around, moving one, the Meteor, to the route of SAL’s historic rival, the old Atlanta Coast Line. Other SAL New York–Florida trains calling on Hamlet included the Palmland and the Sunland (the latter a Washington–Tampa train). Then there were two name trains to Birmingham via Atlanta, the Silver Comet and the Cotton Blossom

CSX’s Hamlet yard and shops still function just north of the station on the main line to Raleigh, but the action is intermittent. Precision Scheduled Railroading as practiced by CSX has left Hamlet with far less traffic than just a few years ago. Kevin called the mile-long line of stored diesels along Highway 177 the “E. Hunter Harrison Diesel Museum.”

As the nexus of three Seaboard divisions, Hamlet was a natural place for a major yard. The facility pictured here is still in use by CSX. J. Parker Lamb, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection 
There are still trains to see in Hamlet. A CSX source informs me the city sees about 20 trains a day, approximately 11 locals and 9 road trains, although the place seemed much sleepier than that. And, of course, Hamlet retains its Amtrak status, thanks to the Star, running these days on the same sort of truncated triweekly schedule afflicting nearly all Amtrak’s long-distance trains. For now, the Star is a Friday-Saturday-Sunday train, with Miami-bound train 91 stopping at Hamlet at 11:18 p.m. and train 92 at 6:14 a.m.

The fact that the station still exists is almost a preservation miracle. By 1999, Seaboard successor CSX Transportation had decided the building’s location in the middle of an interlocking was untenable, despite the city’s interest in restoring it. One can imagine the furrowed brows over liability among CSX lawyers down in Jacksonville.

But instead of taking what so often is the easy way out — “let’s just tear it down” — the railroad and the city hatched a plan to save the building. The city ended up agreeing to buy it for $1 and move it to the south, across the tracks of the east-west line, and turn it 90 degrees to face the junction. Thus, in the spring of 2003, the building was jacked up, rotated, and painstakingly hauled to its new site. The entire project cost $11.7 million, with funding from local, state DOT, and federal sources.

A Seaboard Coast Line freight from Columbia, S.C., trudges north past the Hamlet depot's 'witch's hat' in December 1977. Mike Small
One of the witnesses to that move was Jim Wrinn, soon to be named editor of Trains and then still on the staff of the Charlotte Observer. Saving the Hamlet station had special resonance for this lifelong North Carolinian.

“Watching this massive building get jacked up into the air high enough to walk under was an incredible sight,” Jim recalls. “I’d been visiting Hamlet since 1981 and the depot seemed as permanent in its placement as any mountain or river. But now it was ripped off its foundation and ready to travel over this set of diamonds in the heart of the old Seaboard Air Line!”

There is one more attraction at the station. Displayed behind the building is former SAL SDP35 No. 1114, wearing its original (1964) Seaboard green and yellow with red trim. Coupled behind it is a replica of the 1839 steam locomotive Tornado, a 4-2-0 built in 1839 in Richmond, Va.

Back in the day the Seaboard Air Line proudly proclaimed itself as running “Through the Heart of the South” and emphasized its boast with a red heart logo. As Kevin and I stood in the shadow of those graceful eaves at Hamlet, on a February day with a hint of spring, we were inclined to agree.

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