The town of Hamlet, located about halfway between Charlotte and Fayetteville, is steeped in railroad history, with three free railway museums for visitors to enjoy. Plan this day trip on a weekend to be sure all venues are open to the public. Bring your camera and get ready to step back into a time when passenger railroad service was king.
Hamlet Depot & Museums
Begin your visit at the Hamlet Depot & Museums, which is said to be the most-photographed train station in the eastern United States.
Seaboard Air Line Railroad (now CSX Transportation) constructed the Depot in 1900. At that time it was known as the Seaboard Passenger Depot and had a hotel attached, but the hotel burned down in the 1930s. Hamlet Depot & Museums was restored to its original condition in 2004, when it was moved 240 feet and rotated 90 degrees to its current location. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The main floor of the Hamlet Depot & Museums still serves as an active Amtrak station. The rest of the area serves as a museum, with professionally designed exhibits that focus on the history of the railroad in the North Carolina Sandhills. Operate a real track signal or take in the HO-scale model train set, which occupies the entire basement floor. The model train layout is a replica of the town of Hamlet as it existed in the 1950s. At the time, its rail yard was the largest and most modern in the world.
A staff member with extensive knowledge of the building and its history will guide your tour of the Hamlet Depot & Museums. The building once sat at the apex of eight sets of tracks (ask about the famous “Diamond” intersection), and you’re certain to see some live CSX Transportation freight trains passing through during your visit. Hamlet is considered the best train-watching place in North Carolina due to its heavy volume of freight and passenger train traffic.
Tornado Locomotive Building
Located just across the street from the Hamlet Depot & Museums is the Tornado Locomotive Building, which takes its name from the first steam engine locomotive in North Carolina. The Tornado was built in 1839 by D.J. Burr & Co. of Richmond, Va., and delivered to the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad. The locomotive and its coal car measure 50 feet in length and used to make regular runs between Charlotte and Wilmington. Legend has it that the Tornado even became a brief prisoner of war during the Civil War, when Union troops took the entire railroad between Raleigh and Goldsboro.
The Tornado is restored to its original paint scheme, which was black with red and green accents on its wheels. Prepare to be surprised, as the Tornado seems much larger in person than photographs. The Tornado also served as the Grand Marshall of the Raleigh Centennial Celebration, held in 1892.
The building that houses the famed locomotive also includes two antique Ford automobiles, a Model A and Model T. In addition, you’ll find a historic fire engine and a model train display donated by the Fazzio family of nearby Laurinburg, which is valued at more than $30,000.
Be sure to take note of the architectural requirements of the building. A special skylight was added to the roof to accommodate the size of the Tornado smokestack.
Seaboard Station Restaurant
If you’re ready for a lunch break and want to stay on theme, head over to the Seaboard Station Restaurant. This eatery is a converted Victorian home with railroad-themed walls. The best option is the buffet and locals say the fried chicken is among the best in the South. Bonus tip: Take a trip to Seaboard Brewing in Matthews right outside of Charlotte and taste beers named after the railroad, like Silver Meteor IPA and Tidewater Red.
National Railroad Museum & Hall of Fame
Roughly three blocks away from the Seaboard Station Restaurant is the final stop of your railroad museum tour of Hamlet, the National Railroad Museum and Hall of Fame. Inside the building are some of the most priceless artifacts of railroad history celebrating Hamlet. You’ll see why Hamlet was once dubbed the “Hub of the Seaboard” and now carries the motto, “The Little Town That Can.” Several pieces of rolling stock are displayed, along with paintings of the famous diesel locomotives that once roared through town. Take your time and find the Orange Blossom Special and the Silver Meteor locomotives. The rear of the museum houses a full-scale, walk through caboose. There’s even a gift shop where you can pick up a one-of-a-kind souvenir for your journey home.
Hamlet is a town built by the tracks that crisscross the area, and it once was one of the most vital railway hubs on the East Coast. A visit to its railway museums is truly a celebration of an era gone by, but not forgotten.