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Spencer Shops

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Spencer Shops and the Southern Railway

Since the 1830s, almost 150 predecessor railway lines were combined, and recombined to become the Southern Railway in 1894.  In 1982, the line was combined with the Norfolk & Western Railway to form Norfolk Southern Corporation.   The earliest predecessor line was the nine-mile South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., which was chartered in December 1827.   On Christmas Day 1830, the nation's first regularly scheduled passenger train, the "Best Friend of Charleston" began operations. By 1833, its 136-mile line to Hamburg, S.C., was the longest in the world.

The Southern Railway and its predecessors were innovators in the industry. The South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., not only was the first to carry passengers, but also U.S. troops and mail on steam-powered trains, and was the first to operate at night.

Railway networks spread across the South and across the Mountains. By 1857, Charleston and Memphis were linked. Expansion was halted at the beginning of the Civil War, which was the first war to use the railroads to advantage.   The war left southern economies devastated, but the railroads were a priority and were repaired to operate again. 

The Southern Railway was formed in 1894 as a combination of the Richmond & Danville system and the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad. Of the 4,400 miles of line it operated, the company owned two-thirds and held leases, operating agreements and stock ownership on the rest.  They also controlled several other lines in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

The Southern Railway's first president, Samuel Spencer, continued to expand the network.   During his 12-year presidency, he changed the focus of the company's service from dependence on tobacco and cotton and towards industrial development.  The railway enlarged the shops at Knoxville and Atlanta, and purchased more equipment to handle heavy repairs.  Spencer reported that "one additional large shop may be necessary" on the eastern main line between Washington and Atlanta.  At the time, it was advisable for trains to switch locomotives to be refueled, inspected for damage and wear, and repaired as needed every 150 miles. Locating a major shop facility halfway between the two cities with smaller terminals at the quarter marks, Southern could divide the Washington to Atlanta run into four segments of about 160 miles each.

In late 1895 the public became aware that Southern was looking for a location near the midpoint to build a shops facility that would bring hundreds of new jobs. Many assumed Charlotte would be the logical choice for the project. However, John Steele Henderson of Rowan County, one of Rowan's most prominent citizens and the county's largest landholder did all within his power to change this. An ardent supporter of industrial development, Henderson entered into negotiations with Southern officials. He would secretly buy land for the new shop and sell it to the railroad at or near his costs. It is also rumored that Henderson promised that he could save the company the cost of city taxes by preventing the city limits of Salisbury from encompassing this site. He began in 1896 by buying large tracts of land directly on Southern’s main line just north of Salisbury.  He accumulated 162.2 acres and sold 141 acres to the railroad at about the price he had paid. He later sold more land to the railway when they needed to expand, but this time it was at a significant profit.

On March 23, 1896 workmen began turning over the land to build the shops in the subsequent months. Less than, five months later on August 19, the shops began operating. Samuel Spencer presided at the opening ceremonies. The shops and the town that grew up around them were named for Spencer.

In 1953, Southern Railway became the first major railroad in the United States to convert totally to diesel-powered locomotives, and the Spencer Shops were no longer needed for locomotive repair and used the facility for a time for diesel repair.   In 1979, the Southern Railway moved all operations to the Linwood Yard, just north of Spencer.  In 1977 and again in 1979, the Southern Railway donated the shops to the State of North Carolina for the use as the North Carolina Transportation Museum. 


North Carolina Transportation Museum

Spencer History

Norfolk Southern Corporate History