Not very far away in both time and space there is a place that pretty much anyone who traveled in the eastern part of the United States passed though. A century ago, you could stand here and watch dozens of steam trains go by, take in a show at the opera house, have a good meal and spend a night at the Seaboard Hotel.
Families on vacation, salesmen, actors, politicians, even Presidents passed through here. Soldiers on their way to and from the World Wars and Korea passed through here, normal everyday people did too, and freight, lots and lots of freight.
About a hundred miles south of the Triangle is the little hamlet of… Hamlet. It’s a railroad town and in its heyday 20 to 30 passenger trains a day passed through Hamlet, “The Hub of the Seaboard”. The Seaboard Airline Railroad had 5 lines going through Hamlet, it was the Atlanta Airport of its day.
In 1955 the Seaboard built a new classification yard in Hamlet, at the time it was the largest such yard in the world. A classification yard, sometimes called a freight yard, is where a railroad sorts out cars to get them on the right train. It’s much like sorting mail, only with rail cars.
While Hamlet was the Atlanta Airport of it’s day, it’s day was passing.
In 1967 the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad merged, creating the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, which then merged with Chessie Systems to from CSX.
Diesel locomotives need far less servicing than steam, and didn’t need to fill up with coal and water in Hamlet, passenger traffic declined with the rise of the airplane and automobile, and then the mergers, rerouted a lot of the traffic that used to go through the town.
Compared with its heyday Hamlet is a quiet place, no steam trains go through, the opera house is long gone, as is the Seaboard Hotel.
But the trains still do stop at the restored Seaboard Station, a Victorian gem that is one of the most photographed train stations in the country. You can even get there from Raleigh’s new Union Station.
The Seaboard Station is also a delightful train museum with artifacts and displays from Hamlet’s history, and downstairs is a very impressive model train layout representing Hamlet at its zenith.
Across the street is the Tornado building. It has nothing to do with storms, it contains a replica of the
“Tornado”, the first locomotive to come to Raleigh. While the real Tornado no longer exists this replica is itself an antique, being created in 1892. The building also houses more exhibits about the history of railroading and Hamlet’s railroading past.
Next to the Tornado building is Seaboard Diesel locomotive 1114, along with a red caboose that kids, (and adults!) can climb in. Just a few blocks away is the National Railroad Museum, with more great exhibits about Hamlet and the history of railroading.
Whether or not you are a rail fan Hamlet is a fascinating place to visit. The railroads had a tremendous impact on the development of our nation, our state, and the city of Raleigh.
If you go.
By car: Take US 1 south and once you get south of Rockingham watch for the signs for Hamlet. You’ll be turning off of US 1 just north of the old Rockingham Speedway.
By Train: If you have the time, what better way to get to a railroad town then by rail! Amtrak’s Silver service trains stop in Hamlet, as of this writing it’s $22 each way for a coach seat. Plan on an overnight stay, you cannot do a round trip by train in one day.