Railroad History 101: The Wilmington Railroad Museum

Where: Wilmington, North Carolina

Trip Date: 10/7/17

I have returned home safely from the tropical island of Barbados. However, I was having such a good time relaxing and taking in the sights that I really didn’t get anything done, so you will have to wait one more week for me to prepare my sketches and put an article together. In the meantime, here is the final article on last month’s trip to Wilmington, North Carolina.

My last stop in Wilmington was to see the Wilmington Railroad Museum. The museum itself is small and cozy. The parking lot displays an old locomotive and caboose that served in the area for many years. The displays within the museum are somewhat dated, but the information and history on display was no less interesting. In fact, I felt this museum imparted to me a much better understanding of railroads in general, as well as their relation to the Wilmington area, and the country as a whole. So, here is a very condensed synopsis of that history.

In the Beginning…

From around 1820 to the 1850s the population of the United States was exploding. Specifically, the population grew from around 9 million people to around 32 million in 30 short years. This sharp increase, combined with westward expansion, put a strain on the transportation systems of the time. During this period, if you needed to get somewhere you were basically limited to going on foot, by horse, or by ship (keep in mind that a stagecoach from Boston to Washington, D.C. at this time took around a month). Travel and the shipping of cargo were slow and painfully expensive.

This was especially true in a relatively rural state like North Carolina. For many years the rivers were the primary mode of transport, but ships and steamers could navigate only so far inland. And rivers, naturally, are not very straight. Later, surface roads were built. However, these were unpaved and frequently impassable due to weather.

In the early 19th century, state leaders began realizing that North Carolina was losing trade to areas such as Charleston and Norfolk that had better transportation systems. In 1834 the City of Wilmington received a charter from the state to establish a rail line from North Carolina’s major port (Wilmington) to Raleigh, the capital. It was creatively named the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad. However, Raleigh was unable to raise the funds necessary to support the rail line, so the northern terminus was moved to Weldon, and the line was renamed the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. The W&W opened in 1840, and by the late 1800s it stretched all the way to Columbia, South Carolina.

Railroad Tools

Old tools, likely pre-Civil War, used in the construction and maintenance of the railroads around Wilmington.

Railroads and the Civil War

The American Civil War was the first major conflict to involve the utilization of railroads. Both the Union and Confederacy quickly realized the importance of their rail lines for the movement of troops and supplies. Wilmington played a large role for the Confederacy in this capacity. Most of the supplies for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were shipped through Wilmington on the W&W line.

However, this usefulness led to rail lines becoming high-value military targets. Many of the railroads throughout the south were damaged or completely destroyed during the war. The W&W managed to remain functioning until the fall of Wilmington, only about six months before the end of the war.

It has been suggested that the defeat of the Confederacy was in part due to the southern states’ unwillingness to let the government control the many separate rail lines, thus unifying them for more efficient troop movement. In contrast, the Federal government had no such qualms about controlling rail lines in the North. The fact that rail lines in the south operated on six different gauges—or sizes—of track did not do the Confederacy any favors either. A trip of only a few hundred miles often required passengers to change trains multiple times depending on who operated which lines and what gauge they used.

After the War

It was several years after the war before the W&W was operating anywhere even close to its original capacity. Even then, it was only with the help of investors who were looking to purchase and connect many of the damaged rail lines to create a continuous railroad that ran from D.C. to Charleston that could offer faster and cheaper service. This idea was helped along in 1886 when all of the railways in the south were finally converted to a standard gauge. This would ultimately allow trains to run unimpeded from one end of the country to the other.

Many of the railroads that were purchased after the war were consolidated over the next couple of decades into what, in 1900, would become the Atlantic Coast Line. By 1902 the ACL owned lines running up and down the east coast from Florida to the Northeast, and Wilmington served as headquarters.


A former ACL caboose.

Over the following decades the Atlantic Coast Line flourished, and by 1940 it operated nearly 14,000 miles of track. However, in 1960 the ACL decided that Jacksonville, Florida was a more central location from which to run the company and moved their headquarters, ending more than 125 years of railroad dominance in Wilmington.

Over the next several years, a series of mergers of various rail lines, including the ACL, led to the creation of CSX in 1986. Meanwhile, Wilmington suffered serious financial losses after the loss of one of its main industries. Subsequent “revitalizations” of the city led to the destruction of many of the old rail facilities. Very few of the original buildings remain now. Among those few, however, is Warehouse B, built sometime around the turn of the century. The old warehouse now operates as—quite appropriately—the Wilmington Railroad Museum.


The Wilmington Railroad Museum and Locomotive ACL-250.

As I mentioned, the museum also displays a locomotive built in 1910 by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. This Class K 4-6-0 steam locomotive weighs nearly 150 tons, and was used in passenger service around Wilmington until the1950s.

Railroad Operations

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the running of passenger train services worked much like a ship. The conductor—who popular culture tells us mainly walks up and down the platform yelling “All aboard!”—was actually more akin to the captain of a ship. In fact, many of the early conductors on old rail lines were former steam ship captains. In addition to taking tickets, the conductor’s job was to organize the trains crew, keeping paperwork on the cargo, and making sure the train operated within safety limitations.

Conductor's Cap

The Conductor’s cap.

The engineer—one of the many things I wanted to be as a child—was responsible for “driving” the train. He controlled the speed of the multi-ton locomotive and its cars. Engineers often specialized in 100 to 150-mile sections of track. In their section they would know every curve, every signal, every up and down grade, and every aspiring child-conductor. The Fireman acted as the copilot in addition to fueling the locomotive’s boiler, and making sure it did not explode (because that was a thing that apparently happened with frightening regularity).

Arguably the most dangerous job went to the Brakeman. He was the guy who had to run across the tops of the cars while the train was in motion to manually pull the brake lever on each individual car because central braking would not be invented for many, many years. He was also responsible for coupling the cars (also slightly dangerous, standing between two large metal objects while they are linking together), working track switches, and signaling other trains of danger.

Speaking of signaling, in the early days before electronic signals, or even electric lighting, this was done with various signal flags. As trains started to operate at night, signaling was done with oil lanterns.


Various types of lanterns used by the railroad.

Rail lines were also the perfect paths for telegraph wires: open, straight passageways through the countryside from point to point. So telegraph lines often ran alongside the trains, much like telephone poles along roads today. The telegraph was also essential for communicating instructions to trains and stations.


Part of a functioning telegraph machine, on display at the museum.

I would also like to mention that the entire back room of the museum was one large model of Wilmington’s railroads complete with the occasional thunder and lightning effect. In general it was much more impressive than anything I ever constructed with my old Lionel model train set, or even my Thomas The Train set.

Author’s Note: I realize this may not be my most coherent article, I am also battling a cold this week. I apologize if this post is a little rough.

By | 2017-11-17T10:14:06+00:00 November 17th, 2017|History, North Carolina|1 Comment

About the Author:

James is an artist and illustrator currently working in Georgia.

One Comment

  1. Morton McInvale November 17, 2017 at 7:05 pm - Reply

    Most informative. Enjoyable as always.

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