The Our State Guide to NC By Train Black-and-white photos from the 1930s reveal just how swanky train travel could be — passengers dressed to the nines, dining on fine china,
The Our State Guide to NC By Train
Black-and-white photos from the 1930s reveal just how swanky train travel could be — passengers dressed to the nines, dining on fine china, and playing cards while the countryside whizzed by. Almost a century later, we still think it’s a pretty romantic way to travel. These days, comfort and ease is the name of the game, as passengers zip past new scenery in plush, spacious seating. Whether they’re using the train’s Wi-Fi to catch up on work, reading a book, or reconnecting with friends and family, a sense of adventure abounds. Best of all, there’s no traffic to contend with — and you can even bring your bike on board.
In this series, we’ll share ideas to get you excited about jumping on a train to explore the state! Find out where to go, what to do, and what to eat in downtowns across North Carolina — all within walking distance of the train station. This month, we’re heading to downtown Salisbury.
In the grand waiting room of Salisbury’s Railway Passenger Station, light streams in through tall, arched windows and floods the original, diamond tile flooring. Recreations of 1908 light fixtures hang from grand ceilings, spotlighting a restored mahogany ticket booth that takes center stage. Of course, you think, upon hearing that the depot doubles as a community center; each day, after the last train arrives, it becomes one of the town’s most coveted events spaces.
Originally built in 1908 and fully restored in 1996, this historic Spanish Mission-style station fills two city blocks. With its striking, earthy-red Spanish tile roof and three-and-a-half-story tower — adorned on each corner with gargoyles — the building seems to keep watch over downtown and sets the tone for a city that feels at once historic and modern.
If you’re a history buff, you’ve come to the right place. Rowan County boasts five local historic districts, 11 National Register districts, a history museum, and enough tours to fill more than a day. “I could not be more in love with Salisbury,” says Sada Stewart, director of the town’s Historic Salisbury Foundation. “I say this is the cutest small town in North Carolina.” From your home base at the Depot, it’s an easy walk to historic landmarks in one of our state’s oldest cities.
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After a relaxing train ride stretch your legs with a two-mile Heritage Walking Tour. Just a couple blocks south down Depot Street, pop into the Visitors Bureau (204 East Innes Street). There, you can pick up a brochure for a self-guided tour of Salisbury architecture — much of it built in the decades following the Civil War when the town’s railroad stimulated industry and boosted the local economy.
After walking two blocks south down Lee Street, look for Easy Street, a paved path to your right that leads to City Hall. “It’s an old walkway people used to cut through coming from Depot Station to get to Main Street’s courthouse and shops,” says Lori Arcia at the Visitors Bureau. “It was named because of its easy access from the railway station. You’ll pass by a pretty courtyard and fountain. Strolling through, you can also see some of the sculptures that are part of the city’s public displays.”
After checking out City Hall, which was constructed in 1896, walk down to 101 North Main Street, where you can see the three-story Kluttz Drug Store building — the tallest commercial building in the state when it was built in 1858.
Frank Millburn, the architect behind the 1908 Depot, also designed the Empire Hotel, Grubb-Wallace Building, and the Rowan County Courthouse, all built in a Beaux Arts neo-classical design and part of the walking tour’s 142 destinations.
Back at the Visitors Center, continue your history lesson while you catch a breeze on a Trolley Tour. Offered every Saturday at 11 a.m. from April through October, visitors sit back and relax as their guide takes them past historic Civil War-era locales like the Salisbury National Cemetery and the site of North Carolina’s first and only Civil War prison.
“This is an important stop for people who come to Salisbury for its Civil War history,” Stewart says.
At the Salisbury Confederate Prison — previously an abandoned yarn mill — 11,700 unknown soldiers died during the Civil War. These soldiers are buried in 18 trench graves at the Historic National Cemetery, dedicated by the U.S. government in 1874.
Ask any local their favorite lunch spot, and they’ll likely point you to Sidewalk Deli on South Main Street. Grab a seat indoors or on their covered outdoor patio. The sandwich and salad specials rotate daily, but the “famous meatloaf sandwich” — served hot on an onion roll with American cheese and mustard — is always on the menu. Our tip: Get it with a side of pasta salad … and save room for their selection of house-made desserts.
For a post-lunch shopping excursion, walk up Main less than a block and turn left on East Innes Street. At Hive and Co., you’ll find the perfect souvenir to commemorate your day. Owner Michelle Pentoney is on a mission to “highlight hundreds of local makers with a passion for handmade and natural products” and offers a selection of gifts and home goods ranging from beeswax candles to all-natural cleaning products. Pentoney will happily wrap your purchases in train-travel-friendly packaging.
One of the best parts of shopping here: Since Hive is located in the former O.O. Rusty Building — home to the city’s first general store — you get to peek into another historic Salisbury landmark, which, Pentoney adds, just happened to be the model for the general store in the movie The Color Purple.
When the Spencer suburb of Salisbury began in 1897, it was all thanks to a newly constructed railroad repair-shop complex. Today at the NC Transportation Museum in the heart of downtown Spencer, you can learn more about the 2,500 or so machinists, foundry workers, boilermakers, and carpenters who originally made their homes here.
The museum is known for its trains (and boy, does it have trains — in addition to locomotives and passenger cars that span the history of the railway system, you can hop aboard and take a 25-minute train ride around the property), but it also offers an abundance of all things transportation.
“We’re a family-oriented museum with something for everybody,” says Director of Visitor and Administrative Services Mark Deaton. “In addition to our events, like Day out with Thomas, train, and car shows, we have bicycles, boats, canoes, planes, and pretty much anything you need to get around.”
Deaton says their special events draw enthusiasts, which heightens the joy of exploring the museum. “There’s a buzz and excitement that really adds to your experience.” Though the museum is across the street from a bus stop on a public transportation line that will take you back to the Amtrak Depot, special events also usually offer shuttles to scoot you to and from where you need to go. Check the website for events and hours.
Back at the Depot, as you stand on ornate, original tiles and wait for your outbound train, you can imagine a typical day in 1911, when those same tiles bustled with travelers hoping on and off up to 44 trains a day. Your head filled with historical tales and sites, it’s easy to feel a connection with the past — and exhilarated by a sense of rail travel-fueled adventure still alive and well in Salisbury.