The History of the Southern Railroad and Spencer
"The Road of the Innovators"

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Background photo are 1915 Back Shop workers
 

 

 


Below are links to Sanborn maps of downtown Spencer & East Spencer (Southern City)
in 1913, 1930 and 1930 -1939 in ADOBE pdf format.
Files are over 1 meg.  PDF files are best viewed at 1024x768 resolution or higher.

Spencer 1913
Spencer 1930
Spencer 1930-1939

Click here for T. P. Fowler Spencer History  1953 

Click here for James W. Cooper Spencer History  1986-1974

Click here for Spencer Shops Data You will need PDF viewer


          The story of Spencer Shops begins with a tale of financial collapse and renewal. The Southern Railway Company was formed in 1894, rising Phoenix-like from his ashes of the bankrupt Richmond & Danville Railroad, a once prosperous Virginia-based line chartered in 1847. In 1880, the R&D's owners organized a holding company with the interminable name Richmond and West Point Terminal Railway and Warehouse Company or Richmond Terminal for short. The move aimed to foster further expansion, as the R&D's original charter forbade the leasing of any road not directly connected to it. The new company aggressively acquired smaller lines in the South and by 1890 controlled more than 8,000 miles of rail stretching from Washington D.C. to Meridian, Mississippi. By 1892, however, over expansion and poor management had left the Richmond Terminal in financial straits. The nationwide depression of 1893 made refinancing difficult, and by the end of the year nearly all of the company's railroads had fallen into receivership. Seventy-four other railroads, many in the South, also went into receiverships during the depression. A committee of Richmond Terminal stockholders asked New York financier J.P. Morgan to reorganize the railroad. Morgan agreed, provided that he chose the people to head the new effort. The man Morgan picked to lead the company was a Confederate veteran and proven railroad man from Georgia named Samuel Spencer. A talented workaholic by today's terms, Spencer impressed his employers with his hard-nosed business-like approach. Each time he switched companies (a common practice of career railroad men in that era), he moved to a more prominent position. As superintendent of the Long Island Railroad, Spencer attracted the attention of Morgan, who hired him as railroad advisor. Morgan knew that if anyone could make the troubled rail network profitable, it was Spencer. Morgan decided to reorganize the Richmond Terminal as "The Southern Railway Company". It began operating on July 1, 1894, with Spencer as president. Beginning with only 2,000 miles of track from the old Richmond Terminal, Spencer used Morgan's backing to snatch up many railroads which had formerly been part of the system. In a few months, the Southern Railway grew to 4,392 miles. During its first year the company grossed $17.1 million with profits of $896,000, an astounding feat considering the financial difficulties of the old Richmond Terminal. The speedy acquisition of many formerly independent lines left Southern with a problem. Much of its inherited rolling stock badly needed repairs which the company's meager shops could not handle. In the railway's first annual report (June 1895) Spencer admitted that the "antiquated and poorly equipped" shops were "not sufficient for their purposes." He reported that shops at Atlanta and Knoxville were being enlarged to handle heavy repairs but added that "one additional large shop may be necessary". The most pressing need for another shop complex was on the eastern main line between Washington and Atlanta. It was customary in that era for trains to switch locomotives every 150 miles to be refueled, inspected for damage and wear, and repaired as needed. By putting a major terminal and shop facility midway between the two cities with smaller terminals at the quarter marks, Southern could divide the Washington to Atlanta run into four segments of about 160 miles each. In late 1895 or early 1896 it became public knowledge that Southern was scouting the middle section of the main line for a site to build a shops facility that would bring hundreds of new jobs. Citizens of Charlotte grew excited for their town was located near the midpoint and believed that it was the logical choice for the complex. At the same time, though, one of Rowan's most prominent citizens was doing all within his power to change this. He was John Steele Henderson, Confederate veteran, lawyer, former state senator, the county's largest landholder and an ardent supporter of industrial development. Henderson entered into secret negotiations with Southern officials. He proposed to buy land secretly for the new shop complex and sell it to the railroad at or near the low price he would pay. Unconfirmed legend has it that Henderson also promised that the Salisbury city limits would never be enlarged to include the site, thus saving the company from paying city taxes. In January 1896 he began buying large tracts of land two miles north of Salisbury, directly on Southern's main line. One of the largest purchases was 101.8 acres from an African-American farmer named Robert Partee at $24.50 per acre. He eventually accumulated 162.2 acres at the spot. He sold 141 acres to the railroad at little more than the price he had paid for them. Many people who came to work at the shops bought land from Henderson. After the turn of the century he sold more land to the railway for expansion of the shops, but this time for a large profit. On March 23, 1896 workmen swarmed over Southern's new land and turned the first shovels full of 75,000 cubic yards of earth moved to build the shops in the subsequent months. On August 19, less that five months later, the shops began operating with Samuel Spencer presiding at the opening ceremonies. The shops were named for Spencer. The original buildings included a roundhouse, machine shop, combination smith and boiler shop, wood working shop, storehouse/office building, power plant and a car repair shed.
Development of the Town of Spencer
The tremendous size and scope of the Spencer Shops and terminal demanded a small army of workers. Skilled craftsmen at many smaller shops of Southern's eastern lines were transferred to the new shops. Because trains changed crews at the Spencer terminal, engineers, firemen, brakemen, and conductors also descended on the area. These men brought families and intended to settle down and make new homes. Some chose Salisbury or rural sections of Rowan County, but most wanted to live close to their workplace. Traditionally railroads had to build communities for workers near their new shops. During the summer of 1896, as construction continued on the shops, Southern began to partition 84.9 acres of nearby land into 500 lots. Streets were numbered or named for local geographic features or historical figures. Lots for homes and businesses sold for $100 apiece and it was not uncommon for two or more lots to be sold to the same person. The lots were relatively small, 50 X 145 for dwelling lots and 25 X 145 for those designated for business. In 1901 the 625 residents of Spencer were granted incorporation by the state legislature. ( this information is condensed from "Southern Railway's Spencer Shops 1896-1996" by Duane Galloway and Jim Wrinn, TLC Publishing Inc.)


The Father of the Southern Railway
The Southern Railroad
Road of the Innovators

I can safely say that Samuel Spencer was the father of the Southern Railway System (SRR). Even though his life ended very untimely in a passenger train collision in 1906 his contributions to rail progression in this country are immeasurable.  In 1869, just after the American Civil War, he began his rail career as a surveyor. Working his way up through the ranks on several railroads he was chosen to be the progressive leader of the SRR. During this time some railroads were flourishing while many others were going bankrupt. The Civil War had destroyed much of the rail system in the south and in Samuels Spencer’s early railroading career he was involved with that restoration.
During my early childhood in Spencer I spent many weekends with Aunt Helen at her home just south of the Salisbury train station.  I often said “I am going to work for the railroad”. Upon hearing a train horn I would run up onto the East Bank Street bridge and watch the freight or passenger trains travel below me. I dreamed of being an engineer and driving the train. During my senior year of high school I began working for the Miller Equipment Company building highway and railroad bridges. The training and experience in welding I obtained there allowed me to apply for railroad blacksmith welder position at the famous Charlotte Roadway Shop. When I entered the shop on my first day, I discovered 25-30 Rowan County/Spencer men who car pooled to work every day.   Most of these “old” men served their apprenticeships at the Spencer Shops. Among them were Blacksmiths, Boilermakers, Steam hammer operators, Machinists, Pipe fitters, Carmen and Electricians. I was only 21 years old. I later discovered these old men  were only 45-55 years old. One of those men, the late Clyde Hilliard took this young man under his wing and mentored me. He taught me about railroad scales from the ground up. His tutelage proved invaluable to me. When the hump yard at Linwood was nearing completion, I wrote a letter to Mr. Buchanan, the Superintendent of Scales, pointing out to him the benefit of having a scale inspector located near this important hump yard. He invited me to interview and the rest is history. I attribute my skills in obtaining a position as a Scale Inspector to the early mentoring I received from the “old men” at the Charlotte Roadway Shop. These men were the best of the best. The skills learned through their training at Spencer Shops were enormous. These men trained with the best railroaders in the country. This is where Samuel Spencer played a big part in building his strong company. His leadership could be felt throughout the company. The Spencer Shops were renowned throughout the industry for their engine repairs.  
My experiences with the engineering department in Charlotte and later as a Scale Inspector, Bridges & Structures allowed me to meet many men across twenty states that started their railroad careers at Spencer. My travels have carried me from the phosphate mines of northern Florida to the East Erie Railroad Company, from the sugar mills of New Orleans to the coal mines of West Virginia. My travels have actually been as exciting as I imagine those of a sailor or a Merchant Marine.
The leaders of the railroading industry today are just as progressive as the leaders in Mr. Spencer’s day. Within the global business climate in which they survive many decisions must be made that could potentially make or break a company. Many railroads are investing in research and development to produce all electric locomotives, more efficient work equipment to lay ties and drive spikes and produce fuel from algae.  With the emergence of high speed train technology and the need for more efficient surface transportation work gangs have to be better and faster. Mr. Spencer would be in awe of the super rail gangs of today which are vastly different from the 40 men on a yard and road gang in his day.
 One of the questions I have been asked is “what would Sam Spencer think about today’s high speed rail service”? One thing for sure is that with today’s electronics and automated block signaling Sam Spencer’s untimely death would have been avoided. Being the progressive leader he was,  I believe he would charge ahead developing safe high speed rail travel, even if it meant adding a third main line where it was possible and procuring private and public funding for these massive projects.
I believe Sam Spencer would share my opinion: The progressive railroad of today is in the fight of its life to make a living. That living comes from transportation of goods shipped from point “A” to “B”. Freight railroads can haul specialized freight, heavy stone, coal, automobiles, HazMat chemicals and intermodal traffic safer and more cost effectively and efficiently than trucks. Railroads haul this traffic leaving less of a footprint on the environment. In Samuel Spencer’s day there was little interest in protecting the environment like the progressive railroads are protecting it today. Samuel Spencer knew the railroad business inside and out; from the cost of a wheel bearing to how to overhaul a 200 ton steam locomotive. Samuel Spencer ingrained this type thinking into the company and it has been passed on to the railroader of today. When Sam Spencer stepped off his office car at the newly built Spencer Shops he saw an emerging creation of steel and men along with a new town named for him. He had to feel deeply impressed. As for high speed rail service, he actually had that at the turn of the century. Powerful locomotives weighing upwards of 200 tons with large tall wheels ran at eighty miles an hour with ease. With the new invention of the automobile and the freedoms they created it is no wonder that personal rail transportation has been in decline.
After nearly 38 years of service with the safest and most professional engineering department, I feel those early days of my childhood standing on that Bank Street bridge could not have been any better.  Although I did not see my dream of being a locomotive engineer come true I have seen a satisfying career come to fruition.  I am sure Samuel Spencer riding on that doomed passenger train toward Greensboro would have agreed with me. His statue which stood in downtown Atlanta for so many years is now in front of the Norfolk Southern office complex. It has a great home but I sure would like to see it located in Spencer. In my opinion we are still the “Road of the Innovators”.
Being such a progressive and forward thinker, Samuel Spencer would embrace the high speed rail progress in the south. However, the impediments it presents to moving revenue freight would be a challenge for him. He also would know that the passenger service offered in the tightly congested northeastern part of the country is very suitable to efficient high speed rail. The southern cities which are often fifty miles apart would be a little more challenging for him to make it profitable for his railroad and local communities.

 
 



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