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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

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

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

NC By Train: Third Stop, Rocky Mount

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 Rocky Mount.

As the northbound train pulls into Rocky Mount’s Helen P. Gay Train Station, an excited 5-year-old presses his face to the glass window, yells for his mom’s attention, and points toward a giant mural featuring two trains. The colorful, 125-foot long, 32-foot-high showstopper is a nod to the railways that helped build the town and a hint of the adventure that awaits in historic Rocky Mount.

“When you off-board the train, you can’t miss it. It’s a beautiful piece of art right there on the side of the Carolinas Gateways Partnership building,” says Ben Braddock, managing partner at Station Square. “The Champion ran up and down the Atlantic Coastline from New York to Florida from 1939 to 1979, and the CSX line still runs through Rocky Mount today.”

The giant, colorful mural on the side of the Carolinas Gateways Partnership building is a nod to the railways that helped build the town. photograph by Gerry Brabham

The Romanesque-style station is a three-story red brick building that has been lovingly updated and maintained by the town of Rocky Mount since it was built in 1903. After a quick stop inside to stow any bags, visitors are primed to explore all this historic town has to offer. Read on to discover a few family friendly ways to spend the day in Rocky Mount.

Spark joy and curiosity at the Imperial Centre

Prepare to see kids wide-eyed, gleeful, and engaged when you spend the morning at the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences, about a 15-minute walk north of the train station, just off Church Street. Start in the Children’s Museum and Science Center, where the $6 entry fee includes shows at the Cummins Planetarium. Hourly laser and documentary shows, each starting with a “What’s in the Sky Right Now” presentation, spark imagination and wonder.

“It’s really cool because families go home and, that night, look to the sky to see the different constellations and planets that are visible during that time of year,” says art curator Alicyn Wiedrich.

The youngest visitors enjoy the Toddler Playground on the first floor, and kids of all ages like to dress up and play pretend with the Farm and Market, Doctor’s Office, and Bee Station exhibits on the second floor.

“Families love the live animal gallery — especially the alligator — and discovering sea creatures like the crabs and fish in the touch tank,” Wiedrich says. She recommends checking the schedule for live feedings and opportunities to “meet” the animals.

Admission to the Imperial Centre’s Art Museum is free. Don’t miss the “Life of Creativity” exhibit where kids create their own art at a 3D station, a tapestry table, touch screen games, and two coloring stations. The website features up-to-date information on traveling and permanent exhibits throughout the year. In addition, the Centre hosts community theatre productions, art classes, and summer camps.

The Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences provides children with fun, engaging, and hands-on exhibits, playgrounds, shows, and more. photograph by Darrell Kanipe


Explore Rocky Mount Mills 

From the Imperial Centre, Rocky Mount Mills is about a mile up Falls Road. Here, wood-fired pizza, outdoor games, breweries, and water views create a relaxed vibe. Formerly a cotton mill, the 82-acre campus set back along the falls of the Tar River is now a hopping community that draws locals and Rocky Mount visitors.

“We’re in the heart of eastern North Carolina, and in a great destination where you can bring the family along,” says Julie Baggett, assistant property manager at Rocky Mount Mills. “With three restaurants, four breweries, a bottle shop, and coffee shop, there’s lots to do here.”

Grab a coffee from Books and Beans before letting the kids run off some energy on the Tar River Greenway. Winding around the campus, the greenway connects to five different parks, depending on how far you bike or walk. Sip an IPA on the patio at Koi Pond Brewery and challenge your family to a game of cornhole or a giant Connect Four. Settle in at a picnic table for a tasting flight and tacos at TBC West before jumping into a friendly game in the Gaga pit (a variation of dodgeball) or picking up a paddle to play some Ping-Pong. And yes, you can grab a four-pack of craft beer to take home with you on the train.

Grab a coffee from Books and Beans before exploring the rest of Rocky Mount Mills. photograph by Rocky Mount Mills


Shop Bulluck Furniture Co. 

Walk back toward the train station to Bulluck Furniture Co., a home furnishings store famous among NC designers that has been serving the Rocky Mount community since 1900. At its main store on South Church Street, visitors peruse traditional, contemporary, and transitional furniture, lighting, and home accessories.

In April, thousands eagerly line up at the historic Phillips Warehouse just down the street (218 North Church Street) for Bulluck’s annual Warehouse Sale. Inside the 80,000-square-foot warehouse, bargain hunters delight in purchasing first-quality overstocks, unique market samples, and gently scratched and dented items at 60 to 90 percent off retail price.


Grab Lunch at Central Café

French fries, hot dogs, hamburgers, onion rings … you don’t want to miss lunch at Central Café, less than a 10-minute walk up North Church Street. Owned and operated by the Hardy family since 1927, Central Café serves up a wholesome, friendly atmosphere along with its beloved menu.

“There’s a lot of tradition at Central Café,” says owner John Hardy. “This old diner has a loyal staff and we’re determined to see Central Café through its 100th year serving the community that’s given so much to our family.”

The downtown staple is cash only and takes its famous hot dogs to a new level. It’s also open for dinner, when guests enjoy rotating specials like fish, shrimp, and hamburger steaks and onions, but Hardy says breakfast may be the Café’s best kept secret.


Coffee, Wine, and More in Station Square

End your adventure just steps away from the train station so you’ll have plenty of time before your train departs to check out the shops in downtown Rocky Mount’s Station Square. Braddock recommends grabbing a glass of wine or attending a tasting at Bin & Barrel Bottle Shop, or stopping by Trax Coffee Bar for some locally brewed coffee. Owned by professional saxophone musician Marcus Anderson, Trax often offers live music along with its locally roasted brews, custom coffees, and milkshakes.

Enjoy a glass of wine or attend a tasting at Bin & Barrel Bottle Shop before heading home. photograph by Gerry Brabham

“The coffee shop and wine bar anchor the buildings, which makes up a city block between the storefronts on Main Street, courtyard shops on Nash, and offices on Church Street,” Braddock says. Check local calendars for seasonal events, which have included Food Truck Rodeos, a beer garden featuring local brewers in the courtyard, and barbecue festivals.

From Station Square, it’s a quick walk across the street to the train station. Back on board, conductors are happy to help stow any purchases. Tip for parents: Be sure to ask the conductor for a “conductor kit,” which has a hat, a train bank, and a coloring book. Surrounded by your family, settle in for a dreamy ride home, where the world zipping by is mesmerizing for little ones after their day of adventures.

This story was published on Apr 08, 2021

Alice Manning Touchette

Alice Manning Touchette is a writer and editor living in Raleigh.