Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hamlet, NC: Tracks in Time

From the Richmond County Daily Journal: Tracks in Time
The following article was written by Rockingham native Allison Campbell, a senior at UNC Charlotte majoring in communication studies. ... She spent her fall break with her grandfather, touring the Hamlet depot and interviewing visitors. Her grandfather is Nathaniel Hal Campbell Sr., a Hamlet native and a lifelong railroad worker.
Leaves brush the sidewalks on a crisp October day in Hamlet, N.C. Parked cars are scattered along Main Street on this Sunday afternoon. Buildings line the street; some repainted, some chipped and weathered. The Victorian-style train depot marks the street’s end like a diamond in the rough.

In the early 1900s, the Hamlet Train Depot overflowed with passengers from all along the Eastern Seaboard. Business prospered, and the town flourished during the boom of railway transportation. Restored to its original glory a century later, the depot thrives as the town’s spotlight attraction.

The exterior is light-chocolate brown, which appears hazelnut in the sunlight. Sea-foam green window frames complement the rustic red of the painted tin roof. A small flower bed near the entrance bursts with color. Bright flowers blow like pinwheels in the wind.

To the left of the depot, clusters of cemented bricks memorialize Hamlet natives and lifelong railroad workers. One honors a car inspector and father: “In Memory of Clyde Wilson Sr. by His Children.”

Hardwood maple floors and glossy wooden benches creak in the waiting room. Sunlight peers through multiple French-glass windows, with the ripples and transparency of pulled-sugar candy. Shiny, silver cast-iron radiators stand alone in the corners of the room.

A gift shop stems to the side of the waiting room. Carrol Garner props his elbows on the glass casing of the front desk and greets a visitor with a handshake. A retired yard conductor of 35 years, Garner volunteers at the depot once a month. His son, Cary, served as mayor of Hamlet in 2004, the final year of the depot’s rehabilitation.

Garner grips a pen and taps a book on the desk. He recalls conversations with depot visitors, saying, “They were here when they were children. They say things like ‘Mama brought us here and took us to Florida when we were little’.” He taps the book again and says, “Most of the time they will write a little thing in the book.” The depot guestbook is filled with handwritten comments.

Behind the gift shop is the museum. Freestanding and glass-enclosed artifacts are propped in front of recorded displays with push buttons.

Nathaniel Hal Campbell Sr. stands in the museum entryway and makes small talk with visitors. A Hamlet native and retired locomotive mechanic of 42 years, Campbell distinctively recalls the depot during its heyday.

The transportation of soldiers in the 1940s is his most vivid memory. “They (the soldiers) would stop at the passenger station and ask us to go to the newsstand and buy them something to drink, magazines, candy bars, or whatever,” he says.

Campbell and his buddies earned extra spending money doing this. He says, “There would usually be money left over, so they told us to keep the extra money because they wouldn’t need money where they were going.” The boys would earn a dollar or two, which was “big money back then.”

Local visitors gather near Campbell in the museum. John Edward Graham Jr. enjoys his first visit to the depot. He moves from room to room in his wheelchair, listening attentively to the recorded displays.

His father worked as a signal maintainer for the railroad, so Graham grew up on trains. “I know what coal dust smells like, feels like, tastes like.”

David Travis sits in a corner chair, facing Graham. This is Travis’ second visit to the depot, and he is “extremely impressed” by the museum. He says he “learned so much by just walking around and listening.”

A tour of the Tornado Building across the street attracts visitors. David Riddick, a depot volunteer, unlocks a door, revealing the wooden replica of a steam engine train, the Tornado. Painted primarily black with red, green, and gold trim accents, the life-size replica resembles a toy train circling a Christmas tree.

Next, Riddick gives a tour of the Depot’s basement, which was added during the restoration process. A small hallway of concrete floors and walls leads to the “model.” A large glass casing protects a model of Hamlet circa 1950 complete with houses, roads, trains, and the depot. According to Riddick, model designers “generally choose that time period because you can show both diesel and steam with it being historically accurate.”

The model took more than a year to build and is extremely well-crafted. A model train runs along tracks throughout the meticulous re-creation. “Attention to detail is pretty remarkable,” Riddick says. A noticeable detail is a dog peeing on a fire hydrant.

Another eye-catching element in the model is a pink elephant statue in the Mary Love Cemetery. The pink elephant represents the Mitchell family plot. One story around town is that Mr. Mitchell drank heavily. Some say his wife put the statue there as a tribute to what he saw when he drank. Others claim Mr. Mitchell influenced the Republican Party in the community. Whatever the reason, Mr. Mitchell took it to the grave.

Upstairs, the locals disperse with “good to see y’all” and “bye now.” A visitor experiences Southern hospitality here at its finest.

This rare gem in Hamlet represents more than one hundred years of small town pride and whispers stories of the blood, sweat, and tears of its past.

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