There’s just something about trains, isn’t there? It was overcast, spitting raindrops, and oppressively humid as the typical southern July afternoon. But the unobstructed skyline view was the best you could get anywhere in Raleigh. Situated at the north end of a bridge on an outdoor patio under the pergola, the Boylan Bridge Brewpub was the perfect setting to watch the old die away in the midst of the new rising up to meet its future. Looking out over a criss-cross of old railroad tracks, attention is riveted to a Goliath-sized grand new Union Station the City of Oaks plans to open in late January as the David-sized depot that has served the city since 1950 is retired.
So what do train stations in Raleigh have to do with Fuquay-Varina? They’re “joined at the coupler,” you might say. They share a common pioneering history that began in the late 1800s. Used to being so far from the bigger cities, the vast number of farm communities in North Carolina created a high demand with their need to move supplies and timber.
“Today, the NS and the CSX (Chessie Seaboard) do a great job of moving tons of cargo and getting massive tractor trailers off the highways,” stated Alison Boswell, NCDOT Raleigh Customer Service Manager. “They certainly know how to do trains.”
Research compiled by the Association of American Railroads shows that one train can carry as much as several hundred semi-trucks can. If it weren’t for North Carolina’s 23 freight railroads, it would have taken approximately 4.7 million additional trucks on our roads to handle the 85 million tons of freight that began in, ended in, or moved through the state by rail in 2014 alone.
Tim Carroll, now a Cary Amtrak station agent, has worked with the railways since 1986. Born and raised in Fuquay-Varina, he’s a virtual encyclopedia on “anything railroad.”
“Two railroads came to the area in 1898: the Raleigh & Cape Fear Railway (Ry) & the Cape Fear & Northern Ry. The R&CF ran from Raleigh to Fuquay-Varina to Fayetteville. It reorganized in 1904 as the Raleigh & Southport Ry. It was bought by the original Norfolk Southern Ry in 1912 under the name the Raleigh, Charlotte & Southern Ry. The RC&S built from Varina to Colon and connected with the Durham & Charlotte RR. It all became Norfolk Southern (NS) in 1914. The NS lasted until 1974 when the Southern Ry bought it and merged it into its system. The Southern merged with the Norfolk & Western Ry in 1982 and formed the Norfolk Southern corporation we have today. The trains don’t run on a regular schedule, so you may see one day or night,” Carroll said.
“The Cape Fear & Northern Ry was built in 1898. It ran from Apex to Angier. It was built by the Dukes from Durham. In 1904, it was extended to Durham and to Dunn. It was bought by the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad in 1977 and abandoned in 1982,” he continued. “And we had a third railroad here called the North State Railroad. It ran from Cardenas (Bojangles/Walgreens) to Holland, Angier, and on northeast of there. It was a logging road owned by KB Johnson.”
Confused yet? Long story short, though there have been a trainload of changes over the years, one thing thankfully remains. And that is that it’s miraculously still with us. After all these nearly countless mergers and/or closings, there is one line left that yet hauls cargo from Fayetteville to Raleigh and vice versa. Those living on both sides of the tracks are treated to its familiar clackety-clacks and nostalgic “woo-oo”s all along its journey.
According to Shirley Simmons, the volunteer director for Fuquay’s Friends of the Museums, back in the ‘30s there were ten trains a day making their way through that corridor. At some point, railroad owners realized that cars could be used for more, so they put bench seats on them, and advertised them as “Picnic Trains,” which enjoyed their heyday in the ‘20s.
“Folks would take the train from Raleigh to Fuquay Springs when there was a station on Depot Street on Sundays just to spend the day, “ said Carroll. “They would come down, especially on the 4th of July celebrations, and have a picnic in Mineral Springs Park. But they tore down that depot in the late ‘30s,” Carroll related. 1937, to be exact.
Now, the Norfolk Southern (NS) E25 freight train travels the same route three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, it chugs in reverse.
However, due to deteriorating track issues, trains going through town have needed to slow down the past couple of years to 10 miles per hour from the normal 25 for safety compliance. Because of that, and the fact that crews are limited to only 12-hour days, it took a train two days to do the Raleigh-Fayetteville-Raleigh run. At the end of their 12-hour shift, the crew would stop the train on the track wherever it was, disembark, and board in the morning to pick up where they left off.
Local residents may have noticed that some of the crossings were recently impassable when a massive project got underway from Fuquay to Raleigh by Norfolk Southern, the owner of that section of track. Due to ongoing storm damage and the deteriorating ravages of time, all the track ties needed to be replaced one by one. Over-the-road pavement at the crossings also required repaving.
As for the existing NS freight station in Varina behind the Aviator, the Friends of the Museums have asked Norfolk Southern unsuccessfully on two occasions to purchase the building as a museum addition. However, NS still utilizes it for its crews’ access to the phone and FAX machine. Yes, believe it or not, they still receive FAXes there!
In January 2015, after diligent searching, the group located an original NS Railway caboose built in 1940 that passed back and forth through our town till the ‘70s. It’s NS 375 – only one of 12 NS cabooses from that era (NS 365-376 series), of which only six remain today. It had been rusting idly on a Cedar Bluff, Alabama lake shore for the past ten years awaiting its transformation by a retired railroad man into a fishing cabin. But he died before its completion.
With the help of Ben Slaughter, another area resident, Friends of the Museums bought the caboose and moved it to Chalybeate Springs using two semis (one for the body, one for the wheels). Though the floors and windows were rotted out, 75 holes had been drilled in its sideswipe-damaged panels, and asbestos still clung to its interior walls, many people have been lovingly renovating it ever since.
Hundreds of mostly volunteer man-hours from many Friends have been invested in transporting it, filling holes, sandblasting, painting, floor/ door installation, and re-riveting. Some professional paid work was required, like the welding, so it is hovering around a $30,000 project from start to finish. They’re still about $3-4,000 short, but optimistic that they’ll be successful. Original Carolina 5” yellow pine tongue and groove in the interior and finishing touches like the brass whistle and Aladdin gas lamps are next. The plan is to move it to a concrete pad at the Museums at Ashworth Park as the Caboose Museum, becoming its sixth building on the campus.
“It’s been a true labor of love, with emphasis on the love,” Carroll smiled. “But we’re happy it’s come this far, and ready to be done.”
One of the extra perks of the job, plus the fact that they sport very Kris Kringle-like beards, both Carroll and a fellow Raleigh Amtrak locomotive engineer JD Thomas get to be the stars of the show one day a year on the popular Santa Train. On the first December Saturday, Thomas becomes Santa on the Raleigh-Greensboro route, and Carroll does the honors on the Charlotte-High Point train. Only 300 tickets are available and sell out within two days of announcement. Not many know this, but details and tickets are available now at discounted rates at ncbytrain.org.
But, just so you know, in line with the nomenclature used in the Boylan Bridge Brewpub’s train-dedicated fare with items like their Flat Car Quesadilla and Seaboard Coastline fish tacos, train horns come with their own language, too. On a corner of the menu, it reads that one long whistle means the train’s pulling in to the station, two shorts means it’s starting out forward, three shorts – backing up from stop.
And though further investigation with Amy Sine, Amtrak Train Master, said it’s rarely used, four short horns means the engineer does not understand what the conductor is trying to communicate. However, I prefer the interpretation on the Brewpub’s menu. It lists that four shorts is “Train” for “Hey, kid, how you doin’?” I’m sure the kid in all of us longs to hear that one as we wave to the engineers who all seem to love to wave back!
(For the full story, visit the Fuquay-Varina Museums at Ashworth Park, where copies of the book, “The History of Fuquay-Varina” are sold. And track progress of the caboose’s journey at www.facebook.com/NS375.)