Past, Present, Future: Celebrating 45 Years: North Carolina Transportation Museum

by | Jul 28, 2022 | Attractions

The North Carolina Transportation Museum, located in the middle of the Town of Spencer, has quite a history.  While known for its great events, such as Polar Express and Thomas the Tank Engine, the museum has an interesting history that offers so much more. The museum is celebrating 45 years and I wanted to know more so I sat down recently with Marcus Neubacher, Director of Administration for the North Carolina Transportation Museum Foundation, to get some history of how this all began.


Being lucky enough to have a few museum tee shirts I was curious about the “1896” year that appeared on the shirt.  I asked Marcus.  “In 1896 Southern Railway opened Spencer Shops” which when the property was deeded over to the State it became The North Carolina Transportation Museum at “Historic Spencer Shops”.  One of the first buildings was built at that time and to this day the Storehouse #3 is still on the property.  In 1905 the Back Shop was built, 1911 the Master Mechanics Office, and the current Roundhouse was built in 1924.


On September 29, 1977, Governor James B. Hunt accepted the deed from Southern Railway which included 57 acres at that time.  Today after making several property purchases along the way there are now 60 acres on the museum site.  Originally known as the “Historic Spencer Shops” before the name was changed to what we now call the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

In 1979 there were two big sites requesting money from the State of North Carolina.  One was the North Carolina Zoo, and the other was the Historic Spencer Shops.  According to Marcus “We requested $20 million, but only received $1.25 million which we would receive each year at that time. Later after the recession the amount we received changed drastically”.


In 1982 Norfolk and Western Railway, and Southern Railway merged to become Norfolk Southern Railway.  Robert B. Claytor was at the time named their first chairman.  “We owe a lot of our success to them” according to Marcus because of their years of support and a huge event that they would years later bring to the museum.

In 1983 the museum had its first exhibit called “People, Places, & Time”.  That year 33,202 people came out and then fast forward to today where over 150,000 people come each year for this exhibit.

In the year of 1986 train rides were added to the museum with the help of the North Carolina Transportation Museum Foundation.  Those train rides remain popular to this day with fun events added each year to bring more people out to enjoy rides such as the St. Patrick’s Day Train and the fast approaching
“Brew and Choo” on August 13 next month.

Brew & Choo


It’s hard to believe that Thomas the Tank Engine has been coming to the museum since 1995.  I drive through Spencer almost daily and I love seeing that beautiful blue tank engine with the smiling face sitting on the tracks with all the families walking around and waiting to have their picture made with Thomas.  Nearly 20,000 people, young and old, come out yearly.  Parents, willingly or unwillingly, bring their excited children out for a Day Out with Thomas because who can resist him?  Tickets for that are on sale now.  The dates are September 23-25 and September 30-October 2.  Grab them now because they sell out quickly.

Also, in 1996, the Roundhouse was dedicated and opened for the first time to the public along with Barber Junction.  The Roundhouse is the largest standing in North America with 37 bays “that are still in operation to this day”.  You can also find the original replica of the “First in Flight” Wright Brothers airplane from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


The museum took some big budget cuts after the recession of 2008.  I personally remember at the time wondering if the museum was going to make it.  The museum went from receiving their $1.2 million a year to $300,000 a year, which has gradually increased since.  The museum staff went down to only having 5 employees and thanks to the volunteers and community services workers the museum was able to survive.

At this point and time, the museum had to start charging admission of $5.00 and today it is only $6.00 so the price has remained low considering all that the museum has to offer as you get onto the grounds.  Of course, though visitation dropped because it had been free up to that point.  Admission monies are paid to the State, but they remain on the museum property for their use.  Less than 10% of funding is from the State appropriation, which is why fund raisers, special events, Thomas the Tank Engine, Polar Express, visitations, train rides, and gift shop sales are important to the life of the museum.

In the year 2012 Norfolk Southern did a great thing for the museum.  They decided to use the museum for their 30th Anniversary Celebration “Norfolk Southern Family Portrait”.  Over 4,000 people came from 39 states, Canada, Japan, and Australia.  They brought in 20 brand new locomotives.  This helped to boost the museum back into the spotlight!

In 2014, around 26 locomotives came into town for the “Streamliners in Spencer” where they sold over 4,000 tickets.  This time visitors from 41 states, Ecuador, and England came to see these passenger trains.

Also in 2014, Polar Express started at the museum.  The first year they had 18,000 and had fewer nights and trains than they do now.  In 2019 over 63,000 people came to experience Polar Express and then of course in 2020 they didn’t have the event due to the pandemic but enjoyed over 60,000 again last year in 2021.  I can’t wait to see how many will be coming out this year.

The Back Shop opened in 2017 to the public.  Fun fact is that it is the length of two football fields.  Inside you can find all sorts of interesting cars, trucks, and an airplane along with other fun facts and history broadcast on flatscreens scattered around inside.  You will also see a Piedmont DC3 which was an earlier airplane that they flew in 1948.

The year 2018 brought a major expansion of the automotive and trucking exhibits to include the purchase of Woods Garage and Showroom by the Foundation.  The garage is used for repair and restoration of autos and trucks and is a fully functional garage.

The Wood family owned that garage and auto showroom.  The property was originally purchased in the 1940’s by L.Q. Goodman and given to Carrie Wood.  The garage was constructed in 1950 and the showroom was added on in 1955.

In 2019, prior to the pandemic, the Transportation Museum had a great economic impact for Rowan County and the surrounding community of $22.2 million.  This included visitation, and over 2,100 hotel rooms.  The Chamber of Commerce and the Visitors Bureau are very supportive of the museum.

Of course, due to the pandemic the museum pivoted to virtual programing.  They did a great job of bringing story time and crafts to the virtual screen so that everyone could enjoy the museum and stay connected.  When the grounds of the museum were open, everyone was required to wear a mask even into this past Spring in the Easter Bunny event.  Safety of everyone was a top priority for them.

In the Future

So, with a lot of history behind the museum I inquired what the future holds for them.  “Our next big project is the Powerhouse and Car Repair Shed”.  The Powerhouse is where they originally generated power for the grounds and for the Town of Spencer.  This was damaged years ago by a tornado.  It will be used for traveling exhibits such as a current one at the museum of artwork by Nadine Carlsen a well know watercolor artist through September 5, space for events, and rental space.  Did you know that different buildings on the grounds can be rented?  Well, they sure can for weddings, fund raising events and even birthday parties.

The Car Repair Shed will allow additional space to service and restore train cars to allow them to be out of inclement weather during those repairs.  The repair to both buildings is part of a $10 million project where an architect has been chosen.

“The museum is always looking for creative ideas to bring in more visitors to different events.  We are so glad to be back to normal.  It’s an exciting place to work and I love seeing people come out” according to Marcus.

I was able to chat briefly with Kelly Alexander, Executive Director of the North Carolina Transportation Museum.  She started working part-time in 1989 and became a full-time employee in 1999.  She has worked for both the non-profit North Carolina Transportation Museum Foundation, and for the State of North Carolina.  According to Kelly, “We have seen some major accomplishments over our 45 years.  Our next big focus is on the Powerhouse and Car Repair Shed, which will make two more of our historic structures functional and will further enhance the experience for our visitors”.

The museum has several events happening soon.  I have listed some of those for you below.  Take time to come out and enjoy this treasure located right in your backyard!


  • There are auto shows scheduled as follows
    • Celebrity Car and Truck Show on Saturday July 30/9 a.m.-3 p.m.
    • Ford Car Show on Saturday, August 6/9 a.m.-3 p.m.
    • GM Car Show on Saturday, August 13/9 a.m.-3 p.m.
    • Mopar Car Show on Saturday, August 20/9 a.m.-3 p.m.
    • Antique Automobile Club of America on Saturday, September 17/9 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Brew and Choo Festival on Saturday, August 13 from 4-9 p.m. Tickets on sale on for this fun event which includes multiple beer and food vendors along with live music.
  • Port-A-Pit BBQ Chicken Fundraiser on Thursday, August 25 at 11 a.m.-until sold out.  Tickets on sale now.
  • Thomas the Tank Engine/ September 23-25 and September 30-October 2.  Tickets on sale now.
  • The Polar Express Train Ride has it’s first show on Friday, November 11 starting at 4:45 running through Friday December 23.  Tickets are on sale now and they will sale out.  Be sure to grab yours now… you might even get lucky enough to watch me sing and dance in the show too!

For more details and information on the museum, and all the events listed above as well as future events please visit www.nctransportationmuseum.org.  You can also call the museum at 704-636-2889.

You can find the North Carolina Transportation Museum on all social media including TikTok!

The North Carolina Transportation Museum is located at 1 Samuel Spencer Drive, Spencer, NC 28159.

About The Author

Janet Ruffin

I’m an adventurous soul that loves to interact with people everywhere I go. You might say I’ve never met a stranger! I look forward to discovering and sharing all the things Rowan County has to offer because it’s Your Rowan!