America On The Move illustrates the place of railroads in Americas mobility and commerce in the late 1920s, using the example of Salisbury, North Carolina.
In the late 1920s, railroads carried almost 800 million travelers and commuters annually, which was about 70 percent of all intercity travel. From 1926 to 1930, railroads handled 75 percent of intercity commercial freight, amounting to an annual average of 427 billion ton-miles of cargo (lakes, rivers, and canals carried about 17 percent of intercity freight).
Salisbury, North Carolina, in 1927 - like all cities and towns in the country - was dependent on railroad transportation for most of its economy.
The Salisbury section of America On The Move shows travelers, freight handlers, and railroad workers - all involved in the life of the community. The centerpiece is the Smithsonians famous locomotive No. 1401, built in 1926 in Richmond, Virginia, and which from that year until 1952 pulled the Southern Railways most important passenger trains between Greenville, South Carolina and Salisbury.
Surrounding the 92-foot long 1401 are a number of exhibit treatments. First is a passenger-depot waiting room modeled after the depot that still stands in Salisbury. Then comes an exhibit treatment about the conductor and porters on a passenger train of the era.
In the Salisbury Depot waiting room, a large, detailed model of a passenger train - with cutaways to show the interiors of a mail car, coach, dining car, and Pullman sleeping car - orients modern museum visitors to the architecture and internal arrangements of a steam-era passenger train.
Part of the exhibit describes the rail-borne economy of Salisbury. Other parts tell about the locomotive crew and about some of the many railroaders who worked behind the scenes - clerks, track crews, dispatchers, tower operators, agents - to maintain and run a railroad.
At either end of the waiting room, two travelers tell their very different stories and relate the indispensable role of transportation in their lives.
One is a salesman from Salisbury Mills, one of 15 cotton mills in and around the city in the mid-1920s. He is on his way north to Baltimore, New Jersey, and the garment district of Manhattan. He hopes to secure large contracts with clothing producers for the output of his mill, cotton fabrics. Cotton was the chief economic export of Salisbury and employed many citizens of the town and surrounding area.
The other traveler is Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a well-known educator of the time, who founded the Palmer Institute in North Carolina and who traveled through Salisbury frequently in the 1920s, between her school in Sedalia, North Carolina, and her friends and colleagues in the Northeast.
Dr. Brown was African American, and her unavoidable reality was Jim Crow. In her own authentic words, she describes with her trademark dignity an incident that happened to her as a traveler in the Jim Crow era.
As museum visitors leave the depot waiting room, they encounter an exhibit section about the railroad conductor and Pullman porter. Graphics and artifacts help illustrate the respective roles of these train-crew members on a passenger train. Tools of their two trades fill an exhibit case.
An Economy in Motion is the name of a an exhibit section on Salisburys economy. In the late 1920s in historian John H. White's observant phrase "Railroads carried nearly everything nearly everywhere."
The rail-carried exports and imports including raw materials, fuels, foodstuffs, and manufactures of the businesses and industries in Salisbury and surrounding Rowan County are highlighted.
The visitor also finds out about the nationwide mail-order empires of Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward & Co. Mail-order goods came by mail and by Railway Express.
Thus marketing and distribution are the themes.
The final part of the exhibition section on Salisbury treats the great Spencer Shops, five miles up the road from Salisbury, where the Southern Railway performed heavy repairs on the locomotives in its fleet.
Inspectors, boilermakers, steamfitters, foundrymen, welders, machinists, mechanics, railroad-car repair crews, and skilled workers from numerous other trades worked in the shop complex. The main building was the erecting hall, or "backshop."
No. 1401 last received major repairs here in 1951.
Southern Railway steam locomotive No. 1401 appears in a picture taken after its installation in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
In the theme story, "How Did You Do It?" (in the America on the Move website) find out how the 1401, complete with its tender, was installed in the museum in November-December 1961.
A full history of the 1401 is found in the "Collections" part of the America on the Move website.
In the exhibition, a concluding panel, What Happened to the Railroads? stresses that railroads did not by any means disappear. Rather, they adapted to major shifts in their role in Americas transportation system.
The gradual loss of passenger traffic, the coming of the Diesel revolution when internal-combustion replaced steam locomotives, and the role of railroads at the end of the 20th century are briefly described.
In 2000, American railroads carried 1.53 trillion ton-miles of intercity commercial freight. This was the highest yearly level in the 20th century, three times that in 1927. (A ton-mile, the standard measure, is one ton carried one mile.)