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Photos from Rail Days by the Shell family of Salisbury. Owen Shell, 4, is center.

On June 2 and 3, hundreds of people transported themselves into the past at the annual Great Southeastern Rail Days Festival at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer, but for one Rowan County family that trip had special significance.

For Darren Shell and his family, the event was like walking in the footsteps of previous generations. Though they took full advantage of the weekend’s activities by riding several trains, visiting most of the museum’s attractions, meeting train artist Andy Fletcher and snapping some pictures at a nighttime photo shoot, he says the connections to the past are were what truly stood out.

“For me the best part was the memories,” Shell says, “My grandfather worked for Norfolk and Western Railway when I was a kid, so being out around all the trains with my son just reminded me of a simpler time.”

And Shell reports that Owen, his four-year-old son, couldn’t get enough of the action. He loved riding the trains, and he loved watching the turntable in action. Of the four train rides they took on the first day of the festival, Owen loved the engine ride most, Shell says, because the volunteers working on the tracks gave him a railroad spike to keep.

“His sister is jealous,” Shell says, “But the volunteers were great. We go to the festival every year and this year has by far been the best.”

The best part is the fun doesn’t stop . The next two weekends, visitors can ride into the past on a genuine 1904 steam locomotive with the 21st Century Steam Excursions, offered by the Transportation Museum in partnership with Norfolk Southern and Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. Check here for details and tickets.

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One of my favorite exhibits at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer is a fully restored hospital railroad car – one of the few to survive into the 21st Century.  The development of these mobile care centers really helped in the logistics of transporting wounded soldiers. On the home front during World War II, hospital rail cars were vitally important because of the sick and wounded who arrived daily from overseas.  Many of the patients still needed medical attention, care, and supervision during the journeys to military hospitals.

The Museum’s hospital car, located in the last bay of the Bob Julian Roundhouse, is just one of the many interesting exhibits to encounter during the 2012 Southeastern Rail Days June 2 and 3 in Spencer.

Harper’s Weekly in 1864

Illustration of a Civil War hospital car from Harper’s Weekly in 1864.

Hospital rail cars actually date to the Civil War.  Patients were transported by trains throughout the war—but the bumping and jerking of the rail cars caused further suffering. By 1864 a Union Army surgeon designed a means by which cots could be suspended by thick rubber belts so that they would not jostle the patients.

During World War II the government purchased hospital cars of two principal types: ward cars and ward-dressing cars.  Ward cars had wide aisles for carrying litters, patient beds, office space for nurses, and cleaning facilities.  Ward-dressing cars had all of the above plus a small area for attending to dressings or performing emergency surgical procedures.  In a hospital train there were usually 2 ward cars to each ward-dressing car.  The hospital cars were often pulled by regularly scheduled passenger trains.  North Carolina destinations for the army’s hospital cars included Camp Butner, Salisbury, and Swannanoa.

Interactive exhibit in the restored hospital car at the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

Interactive exhibit in the restored hospital car at the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

After the war, the government sold off the surplus hospital cars—in fact Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus bought several!   Kept in case of future need, some were eventually sent to Korea.  Now, of course, the military uses trucks and airplanes to transport patients.  But, thanks to the Museum’s interactive exhibit, you can really get a feel for what it would have been like to travel the rails to recuperation.

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