THE LEGACY OF ROCKY MOUNT NC
Mention “the steel city,” and immediately, everyone knows you’re talking about Pittsburgh, PA. “Music City, USA” is another way of identifying Nashville, TN. And there’s no city as windy as Chicago. Even if you’ve never been there, the large street lamps, shaped like those delicious chocolate candy “kisses,” leave no doubt that you’re in Hershey, PA. At one time, the name--Richmond, VA—appeared on just about every carton and pack of cigarettes. Is there anything as delicious on any holiday table as a Smithfield [VA] ham? And although they may have fallen on hard times, Detroit IS “the motor city.”
Why the geography lesson? These, cities (and many others) are linked forever with a product or physical characteristic that calls for no other clues as to its identity.
The physical reminders of Rocky Mount’s legacy however, are rapidly disappearing—its railroad heritage. The friendly picturesque All American town that straddled the double main line tracks of Champion McDowell Davis’ great Atlantic Coast Line Railroad is fast becoming a fleeting memory. Once home to thousands of skilled machinists, electricians, black smiths, laborers and others, who kept the lights glowing ‘round the clock at the sprawling Emerson Shops complex, armies of brakemen, conductors, firemen and engineers who stoked the fires of hungry steam locomotives or made up and took apart trains of valuable manufactured goods and precious agricultural commodities, Rocky Mount appears amicable to forgetting why it was born and the reason it was one of the most important rail junctions on the east coast of the United States.
Oh, Rocky Mount isn’t alone. Altoona, PA, Huntington, WV and Omaha, NB are other towns that came into existence because the gods of railroading identified a vacant parcel of land located at just the right distance between two other points on a railroad map, picked it up, breathed life into its lungs and gave birth to it. Steel rails fed it, clothed it and caused its heart to beat vibrantly for many, many years. Only those who sold railroad workers their clothes, their groceries, their automobiles, and others who taught their children to read and write, fixed their appliances and paved their streets didn’t work for the railroad directly, but owed their own livelihoods to it.
But while some of these other towns were able to adapt their facilities to grow and expand, thus insuring their importance and long term viability, Rocky Mount was just too close to Richmond, too close to Florence. Its shops weren’t as modern as those in Waycross or Jacksonville. The winds that used to blow across the bridge yard and echo off the walls of the shops where hundreds of passenger and freight cars were built, where the ACL’s entire fleet of Electro Motive diesels and steam engines were rebuilt, are now vacant. Where thousands of workers once whistled on their way to the erecting bay, the tall grass now sings a sad lonely wail.
There are those who were once a part of this wonderful institution, the heart and soul of this town. Their numbers are dwindling. Their memories are failing. The Telegram prints their names, announcing when and where they and their earthly treasures will be relegated to history. Years from now—not many years, but in the not too distant future—signs will likely be erected noting where the railroad used to be. Where grandfathers and great grandfathers once toiled to sweat driving tires onto a steam locomotive, where hostlers once gathered at the sand house to warm themselves beside a glowing fire. Where the metal-on-metal of coupling cars echoed off of the houses and businesses from one end of Church Street to the other, day in and day out.
There’s a small group fighting to preserve Rocky Mount’s railroad history—The Rocky Mount Railroad Museum. Like the engine pulling a long, long freight train that has just received a signal to proceed at Bassett Street, it’s struggling to gain traction. Its driving wheels are slipping. It needs help. Your help.
At the throttle, with all the determination of her father, Tom Edwards, Jr., who, like his father, shoveled coal into the belly of a smoke belching, steam blowing, coal burning locomotive, is Joyce Edwards Dantzler. It has been her dream to honor her dad and the other thousands of railroaders who helped shape Rocky Mount. His story, and those of every man and woman who drew a railroad paycheck here needs to be told.
Rocky Mount is in a unique position. Unlike the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, it has no round house. So much of what made it a railroad town has been razed or hauled away. But then, what this town has to offer is far more important than mere machines or buildings. There are closets filled with uniforms, hats, gloves, ticket punches, lanterns, tools—and, no doubt, pictures that could be scanned, negatives and slides that could be enlarged and brought to life. You see, those pieces of metal or cloth have no value, in and of themselves. It is the story they tell that is the lost treasure of Rocky Mount, NC.
On April 26th, The Rocky Mount Railroad Museum’s Annual Membership Banquet and
Auction will be held to help raise money to establish the museum. Right now, it is a dream, just out of the reach of an increasing number of Rocky Mount’s citizens and others from surrounding towns and counties. And at a time when we’re all struggling to make ends meet, it’s probably not the best time to reach out and ask for your donations. There’s never a GOOD time to solicit funding for any project—large or small. But with more and more of the town’s legacy fading away, you have to ask yourself, “Can we afford NOT to support the Rocky Mount Railroad Museum?”
I’ll be here on April 26th, at The Hunter Hill Café, 501 Old Mill Road at 4:00 pm, in a town I once called home for a couple of years. One in which I learned to become a locomotive engineer, one where I came to know people like Tom Edwards, and hundreds of others who took pride in living and working for the railroad. It will be my privilege to speak and to offer some of my books and other things I intend to donate to help raise money. I hope you’ll make plans to join me for a fine afternoon of great dining, fellowship, memories and fun. And if you can donate something you think might help get our railroad museum rolling, please do. The Rocky Mount Railroad Museum needs help. YOUR help.