National Railroad Museum Curator Bill Williams doesn’t see the opening of the organization’s new building as a beginning so much as he sees it as a continuation of more than 30 years of hard work.
“We are 33 years old,” Williams said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new location of the museum Thursday. “But we are in a new building, we own this building, and it is the permanent site for our museum.”
The Richmond County Chamber of Commerce hosted the event, which drew more than 50 people to the Spring Street institution.
County Commissioner John Garner spoke as a county delegate.
“History is created every minute and every second, and one historian said we realize it, but we don’t ever recognize it,” Garner told those in attendance. “And we want every second to count for the National Railroad Museum. It is very true, and what we want to do today is we want every second to count for the National Railroad Museum here in Hamlet.
In his remarks to the audience, Williams said the National Railroad Museum is the museum of the common man, where everyday people have contributed their own memories so they can be preserved for future generations.
“We have a board of directors and volunteers that work here, but this is your museum,” he said. “This is the people’s museum, and it’s because of people who have donated and previous board members.”
He said 33 years has been a long journey to arrive at this moment.
“We’ve been around a long time, and had our ups and downs, but we decided at one time that we had to have a permanent home,” Williams continued. “So we bit the bullet, decided we were going to try to find a way to do it, and we did find a way.”
His wife, Bobbie Williams, recalled how the National Railroad Museum was formed in 1975, and chartered in 1976, by the Hamlet Garden Club. Some conscientious women wanted to preserve the town’s heritage as a rail junction.
“It was originally in the triangle of the tracks,” she said. “This collection has a lot of things other people might just throw out, but they wanted people to be able to learn about what the railroads meant to their community, so they preserved these items that people have donated to the museum over the years.”
She pointed out several of the items that have a place in her heart, such as the dishes from a dining car, the order that all trains be stopped on the day President John Kennedy was assassinated and a timetable used to track trains.
“We were recently visited by someone from the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, and they said we had the best small artifacts collection in the country,” she said. “Of course, people tell us that all the time, but it still meant a lot to us.”
Over the years, Williams said, what began as a Hamlet social club has grown to include people from all over the country.
“We received this table from a man in California,” she referred to a piece of furniture. “It actually came from Bryson City, right here in North Carolina, and he said he wanted us to have it.”
The main fundraising mechanism for the museum lies in the Gift and Thrift Shop in Hamlet, but over the years it has been private donations and private enterprise that have kept the museum going.
Williams recalled $40,000 being raised through selling a cookbook at one point.
“We don’t receive any state or federal money, or anything like that,” Williams said in his remarks. “The work is done totally by volunteers, we don’t have any paid employees.”
“This is really just a collection of items people wanted to preserve for future generations,” he said in an interview before the event. “That’s what makes it unique.”
The National Railroad Museum is located at 120 E. Spring St. on U.S. 74 East, and can be reached by phone at 582-2383.
The hours of operation are Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. It is also open any day of the week by appointment.
There is no admission fee. Groups are welcome.