HAMLET — As the Silver Meteor glides across an overpass on N.C. 38 outside Hamlet, tiny diners will sup, sleepers sleep and baggage, rest in comfort.
The passengers and the train on which they ride will be mere models, scaled 1 inch to every 48 in life. But they will stir grand memories of a train that once drew crowds to the Hamlet depot.
“Everybody knows the Silver Meteor,” says Bob Ellwanger, a member of the Hamlet Depot Board, which will install a diorama housing a model of the train in early 2018. The board has the engine and is waiting for six cars, which it ordered two years ago.
“I can remember, as a little boy, Dad taking us (from Rockingham to Hamlet) to see the Silver Meteor. That’s the one everybody wanted to see” on its run from Miami to New York and back.
The story goes that one woman wanted to see it so badly that she ignored labor pains and nearly had her baby trackside.
The prime passenger train for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad from 1939 to 1967, the Silver Meteor was streamlined and one of the first to be air-conditioned. It even carried nurses to attend to passengers’ medical needs. The train ran on diesel fuel between Miami and Washington, D.C., where it switched to electricity.
Behind its engine and baggage car were sleeper cars, and the Hollywood Beach, a “sun car” equipped with a bar and lounge; both sleepers and the sun car were for first-class passengers only. Then came a dining car, coach seating and a boat-tailed car with a rounded end for observation of the tracks and scenery as they flew by.
“(Planes) then could fly from New York to Miami, but the cost of the Air Line was cheaper,” says Sam Hill, a board member who built the existing HO museum exhibit in the Tornado Building.
The Silver Meteor still runs — but not through Hamlet. When Amtrak began in the 1960s, the Silver Meteor was rerouted to the east, and only the Silver Star traveled through Hamlet from Miami to New York and back again. The routes for the two trains now meet in Selma and Savannah, Georgia.
The new model will remain static, except on special occasions, when depot board members will let it run on its existing HO-scale track. There’s not enough room in the building to run the train more than rarely — it will take up 14.5 by 2 feet just in static display.
“This will be a one-of-a-kind display,” said board member Bill Matheson, who designed the diorama. “There won’t be anything like this anywhere in the world.”
A normal Silver Meteor would have 16 to 18 cars, Matheson said. The model, though, will have only seven — an example of each kind of car.
Board members already have a mint-green engine. It’s one of the very few crafted by Golden Gate Depot of San Ramon, California, whose workers hand-make detailed, scale-model railroad cars. The engine itself cost about $800. Altogether, the assembled Silver Meteor will cost about $2,000 — around $300 per car. Each will be roughly 2 feet long and lighted so the tiny scenes inside will be visible.
Next, the men want to collect enough to build the diorama. Depot supervisor Kevin Pickford, a master carpenter, is “ready to go (and) so excited he can’t stand it” until the board raises the money.
Other members will add the scenery from the late 1950s and early ’60s — clouds floating by, buildings dotting the countryside and tiny people doing whatever it is tiny people should do.
If everything follows the plan — in case you don’t remember, Matheson is the one who planned and engineered the Hamlet Depot turnaround and move — the Silver Meteor should be flying across that bridge in January or February. Or look as it it is, anyway.
Anyone who might wish to contribute can make a donation to the nonprofit Hamlet Depot Board c/o Hamlet City Hall, 201 W. Main St. Hamlet, N.C. 28345.
Reach Christine S. Carrolll at 910-817-2675.