By Kay Whatley, Editor
The Rocky Mount Railroad Museum recently held its annual meeting at Braswell Memorial Library in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, which included a city railroad history presentation. The Railroad Museum is currently setting up in the train station, with plans to open soon.
Guest speaker Peter Varney, retired Rocky Mount Assistant City Manager, talked about the history of the railroad in Rocky Mount. Varney’s presentation, titled “Significance of the ACL Railroad to Rocky Mount,” included photographs going back to the early 1900s, and more recent photos documenting the train station’s city purchase and restoration.
(ACL = Atlantic Coastline)
As Assistant City Manager, Varney worked on the train station redevelopment, the Douglas Block restoration, and upgrading of other city amenities. The railroad’s presence is responsible for Rocky Mount’s growth as a hub for commerce and for the area’s population during the 1800s and early 1900s. Three points he made:
- The railway is an important piece of Rocky Mount’s Transportation Infrastructure, for passengers and freight, going back to its beginnings.
- The tracks run along the county lines of Nash and Edgecombe counties (Twin Counties).
- Social presence of the railroad divider in the city provides a courthouse — despite not being a county seat — that serves both counties.
With Amtrak passenger trains, foot traffic at the Helen P. Gay Historic Train Station averages 50,000 passengers per year. Travelers, and local visitors, will be able to walk through the Rocky Mount Railroad Museum at the station and learn the history of trails, tracks, and railway companies to this city.
(For comparison, Wilson and Fayetteville stations match the 50,000 passengers, and Raleigh’s station sees almost 100,000 per year.)
A timeline and facts from Varney’s talk continue below the photos.
History of Trains and Tracks in Rocky Mount
From Mr. Varney’s presentation
A US post office was established at a settlement at “the falls of the Tar River,” with the post office building set up where Battle Park is in the present day. Having a post office in the falls area served as a draw and provided jobs.
This is pre-railroad times, when the family businesses established in the area consisted of the grist mill, cotton (Battle family), and pine products (Bunn family) — pine pitch, lumber, etc. — sent down the river for sale.
The Wilmington and Weldon railway built tracks along the “fall line” to Weldon, NC, running through Rocky Mount. The Bunn family expanded their business into naval stores (materials used in shipping) including textiles.
Hotel construction adjacent to the railroad provided more jobs and a draw for travelers, supporting business growth of eateries and more. The hotel was located near where the Douglas Building is in the present day.
During the Civil War, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad served as a supply line to Richmond, VA. This supply line suffered several attacks, from both armies. The grist mill also suffered damage during the war years.
A loan was taken by Wilmington and Weldon to repair the railroad following the war. Bankers in Baltimore provided the loan, which carried with it their vision of connecting the Atlantic Coast “short line” railroad to extend up the East Coast of the United States to connect Baltimore with southern stations. The Wilmington and Weldon Railroad was renamed the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Association.
During the war, tobacco use was introduced to northern armies. Demand grew and tobacco became a more prevalent crop than cotton. Companies from England/Ireland and China established tobacco exporters, increasing worldwide demand for tobacco.
The town population is approximately 810 people.
Booming railway business increases the town’s population to 2,937 people.
The train station, built as a two-story brick structure, opened for business in the town of Rocky Mount, creating more local jobs. The station shifted the center of commerce away from “the falls” to the new railroad station and tracks, which would become the present-day Main Street “city center.”
Rocky Mount gained the nickname of “Tobacco Town” and residents and companies established banks, a pharmacy, another hotel, city hall, and a variety of businesses — which created more jobs.
The town population has reached 8,000 people. Note that over the coming decades, the train station was expanded to the three-story structure seen today.
The train station is all but abandoned by this decade, with the railroad using only a few offices. The building has fallen into disrepair.
Having sat idle for some time, the dilapidated train station was acquired by the city of Rocky Mount. Conversations take place regarding what to do with the historic structure. In the ensuing years, decisions are made to restore the building (Historic Preservation) as part of the downtown development planning. Renovations begin alongside other city projects.
Prison labor from the women’s prison in Rocky Mount is utilized for the tear-down and renovating of the three-story station.
Renovations are finished, and the historic Helen P. Gay Historic Train Station becomes a part of the developing city, with Amtrak coming on board (pun intended) to use the building as a terminal and passenger/freight offices.
Passengers may board trains at Rocky Mount, with ticket counters and security in full swing. Visitors may enter the train station to view the first floor of the beautifully-restored historic structure. Once the Rocky Mount Railroad Museum opens on the first floor, train riders, local visitors, and tourists can view more about the railway and city history, including memorabilia from the Pullman Porters, engineers, and conductors. A variety of businesses occupy the second and third floors.
Rocky Mount Railroad Museum 2020
A decade in the planning, the Rocky Mount Railroad Museum is pleased to announce that it will open to visitors in late Spring 2020, with a tentative schedule to be open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays for visitors. Appointments on other days can be arranged for classes and groups.
Museum hours will be announced soon along with opening day details.
The Railroad Museum’s mission is to preserve the history and impact of railroads on the city of Rocky Mount, and honor the workers of the Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard Coast Line, and CSX.
The Rocky Mount Railroad Museum board has been working with city officials and sponsors since 2009 to create this history exhibit. There will be displays of railroad and train memorabilia and photographs. Local residents have contributed family train memorabilia in recent weeks, growing the museum’s collection.
Vintage trains will be on display, including a large train donated to the museum with an engine almost three feet long. Ten-foot sections of track will be used as part of this big model’s display. There will be a model train running on a table-top model railway.
Children’s drawings of trains will be displayed on bulletin boards, working with schools and visitors to create new drawings each quarter.
As founder Joyce Edwards Dantzler put it, “We are happy to be located in this beautiful, historic train station, but still have a lot of work to do.” Volunteers may be needed to set up the many tables and glass cases, in advance of the Spring opening. A call-for-volunteers is expected to include needs for physical labor, a grant writer, website assistance, and an archivist to catalog the museum collections.
Monetary donations are welcomed, along with office supplies. The Champion Wall will accommodate monetary donors at the Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels (amounts to be announced).
If you have train memorabilia of historical significance you’re interested in donating, call in-advance to discuss acceptance for the museum’s catalog.
The museum walls are decorated with three painted banners, created since 2013 by teacher John Gay and the Nash Central High art club. Prints of these banners may be purchased by mail, at the museum, or via the website, with the $35 per print helping support the museum.
Visit RMRailroad.org (currently being updated) to learn more about this 501(c)(3) nonprofit and upcoming exhibits at the Helen P. Gay Historic Train Station, 101 Coastline Street, Rocky Mount, NC. Volunteer days may be posted on that site.
From the Rocky Mount city government website:
Rocky Mount was incorporated as a town in 1867. However, the city had its beginning in the early part of the 19th century. It centered around the first post office which was established at the Falls of the Tar River on March 22, 1816.
The 2020 estimated city population is close to 60,000, with 140,000+ including the metro area.