All Aboard: Wilmington Railroad Museum offers a ticket back in time

BY Lee Lowrimore

There’s something about trains. Whether it’s Thomas the Tank Engine or the lonely whistle of a locomotive rolling by in the small hours of the morning there’s something engaging and evocative about the big machines that ushered in transcontinental travel and shipping.

In its new location at 505 Nutt St. the Wilmington Railroad Museum tells the story of the development of the railroads particularly the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) which was headquartered in Wilmington for more than 100 years.

“Our mission can be boiled down to three words ” says Mark Koenig executive director of the museum “educate illustrate and demonstrate. We’re educating people about rail history and heritage. We’re illustrating with artifacts and the ability to show period exhibits. And demonstrating through model operations. With scale models you try to achieve a sense of realism and give people an appreciation how rail lines may have operated with a functioning demonstration.”

In the front section of the museum dubbed History Hall finely detailed display cases tell the story of the railroad from the jobs people held through railroad advertising to the Pullman experience. Two cases tell the history of the work African-Americans did on the railroad from galley cars to depot staff to Pullman Porters.

Koenig works in partnership with a museum trustee to create the cases. “He handles most of the historic stuff. I’ve been working more on the special interest cases. We have a wonderful stockpile of flat artifacts all the way from something as everyday as tickets and baggage claim checks through dining car menus. We’ve got a whole box of uniforms and garments that were used.” These items help Koenig compose a case and more effectively tell the story. “And it’s a story that’s fun to tell ” Koenig adds.

The period exhibits illustrate what life and work would have been like for the railroad’s depot agents repair staff and clerical workers.

The Children’s Hall is designed for the museum’s littlest visitors. Here they can push trains around or have fun with toys on toddler-sized play tables. Next to the tables is an O scale model train layout. O scale which in the U.S. is ¼ inch = 1 foot had its heyday when model railroads were considered toys and these have lots of lights bells whistles and action.

In the 1 500-square-foot Model Hall volunteers are working to install the new HO (half O) scale model train environment that completes the museum’s displays. The plan intricate detailed and historically accurate calls for a total of 10 to 12 scale miles of track in a variety of surroundings. The double main line loop is already in place. It will take a train at normal speeds about 10 minutes to make the circuit. One of the wonderful opportunities in the model room is being able to walk through the middle of the layout observing the trains from different angles and vantage points.

While some favorite environments such as the ball field will be carried over from the much smaller layout in the old museum most of the vignettes and the entire decking layout circuitry and power supply will be brand new. This will all be the work of a dedicated core of hobbyists making sure this new model is laid out correctly.

One particularly interesting new vignette will be the ACL headquarters itself. Working from the many photographs of the site both aerial and ground level modelers are creating exact replicas of the freight station warehouses passenger station roundhouse and turntable all of which existed within two blocks of the current museum.

The final stop indoors is the library with more than a thousand books and thousands more periodicals. “And of course ” says Koenig “many volumes of Atlantic Coast Line records — payroll reports equipment rosters annual reports books and ledgers that go back to the 1850s.” With its written and photographic archives the library promises to turn the museum into a valuable resource for historical research.

Outside in what the museum calls Railroad Heritage Square stand the monumental exhibits actual full-sized rolling stock — caboose boxcar and locomotive. The caboose is maintained with the fixtures and fittings from its operational days — such as stove sanitary facilities and galley — that allowed for multi-day operations. The caboose is very popular with museum-goers. “Kids love to ring the crossing bell ” says Koenig.

The locomotive isn’t functional; it’s been preserved for static display. When you climb up into it however and trip a motion sensor that initiates the sound effect of an engine starting and a train rolling out of a station you get some sense of the power of the machine and the close quarters in which the men operating it worked.

The painstakingly researched displays of the current museum stand in marked contrast to its beginnings 29 years ago. After many of Wilmington’s railroad buildings had been demolished in the 1960s (in the name of urban renewal) Hazel Morse Marguerite James and Gerda Wootten determined that the city’s rail history shouldn’t entirely disappear. In 1978 after developing the idea of a museum and assembling artifacts they began operating out of the Governor Dudley Mansion. “This was fitting ” says Koenig “because Governor Dudley was the first chairman of the board back in the 1830s.”

The museum incorporated in 1979 and four years later acquired space in the three-story building that was formerly the ACL freight office. In 1986 it acquired the locomotive which was hauled to North Carolina from static display in Florida. The museum grew in place through the early 2000s acquiring artifacts accepting donations and telling its story.

“In late 2005 ” relates Koenig “the city bought this building warehouse B and very graciously allowed us to occupy five of the eight bays.” Koenig has been at the museum since January of this year. “I was hired by the museum ” he laughs “and they said ‘Oh by the way you have to move the museum.’” Though the move was in early April preparations began last December.

In true modelers’ fashion the volunteers developed a model of how the new museum should look before they began work. The museum retained an architect to make sure everything was built according to code but for all the volunteer work the model has been its plan. “We really didn’t have a lot of working drawings ” says Koenig. “We just used the model and made sure everything came about. We’ve got a great group of dedicated volunteers [with] over 4 000 hours invested over the last few months.”

Koenig feels that moving into the new space has brought the museum to a crucial moment in its history. He says they are turning the corner from an enthusiast organization which is always nice to have in a museum into one with a more rigorous institutional mindset that offers not only memory and entertainment but also scholarly resource.

The challenge according to Koenig is how to turn that corner without losing the charm and character that has always been a part of the organization. With its carefully thought out exhibits and the dedication of its volunteer base it’s clear that the Wilmington Railroad Museum has superbly met this challenge. Luckily the story of the railroads will be told here for many years to come.

A Ticket Back In Time: Period Exhibits

The first period exhibit you come upon is a circa 1942 depot agent’s office modeled on the Kerr Station just north of Wilmington. With its war bonds poster old time chalkboard calendar and period and vintage equipment one gets a feel for what an agent’s day would be like. “They tended to be very busy ” says museum executive director Mark Koenig “and jacks of all trades because they had to book the passengers and the freight and keep in touch with what was going on down the line manage the telegraph and the telephone.”

The maintenance exhibit has a rail car that would carry as many as four workers out on the line to do repairs on the rails. It also includes the tools they would use such as rail gauges to adjust the width of the rails specialized levels to balance the rails and connectors and spikes to make sure the rails were properly tied down.

The final period exhibit reveals the world of railroad clerical workers of the 1920s. Though the offices were primitive by contemporary standards (no cubicles air conditioning or even proper lighting) there are some surprisingly modern touches. There is a Dictaphone which worked on a wax cylinder and a punch card machine the mechanical forerunner of the modern computer.