Since the 1830s, railways have been a key part of American commerce.
Even in the age of instant digital transactions, they remain vital in moving goods, consumer products, and people. CSX’s Carolina Connector, slated for launch in October, is visible proof that trains are central to the twin counties’ economic future and history.
A group of model train enthusiasts have captured the essence of how railways connect industries, communities and opportunity. Since 2018, the Golden East Railroad Modelers have built an array of model trains, tracks and assorted transportation in a space of over 5,000 square feet at the Golden East Crossing Mall.
The group has even set up a multimodal installation illustrating the interaction between rail, port and road freight. Miniature replicas of the Carolina Connector, historic Helen P. Gay Rocky Mount Station, and Rocky Mount Rail Stations are included.
“We tried to really connect with Rocky Mount,” said Don Ries, a member of the club’s board of directors.
Known as “The Junction,” the model train complex is open to the public every Saturday. At other times, the club’s fifty or so members work to improve existing exhibits and create new sections. Tommy Hudson, a semi-retired Tarboro resident who is the club’s president, said the attraction had more than 10,600 visitors in its first year. Names in the guestbook include people from New York City, Connecticut, California, and many other states.
“There were also visitors from overseas,” Hudson said. “Some are in the area to visit their families and they stop.”
About a third of what can be seen at The Junction was once housed in Wilson. When the owner of this space decided to retire, the sprawling display needed a new home.
About 18 months later, Sheena Jerman, Executive Director of Golden East Crossing, received a visit from Alan Matthews, who heads retail economic development for the Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the city. by Rocky Mount. Matthews had heard that the club was looking for a space to house their models. Would the mall be willing to host it in kind?
“Alan came to see me personally to come to terms with it,” Jerman said. “We had just learned of the arrival of the CSX hub and I was able to see how the development of the model train site could help the community. “
Jerman quickly received an OK from Hendon Properties, which owns the nearly 580,000 square foot mall. Executives at the Atlanta-based company shared his excitement about moving the club to the mall, later sending a photographer to take photos of the facility to distribute in the company’s newsletter. .
The partnership has since been a win-win for both parties, as well as for Rocky Mount.
“We’re in constant communication with them about the things we can do,” Jerman said. “We are always looking for ways to help the community. There will certainly be more to come.
Despite its partnership with Hendon Properties, the Golden East Railroad Modelers nevertheless incur expenses for the operation of The Junction. Supplies, including lumber and electronics, are primarily the responsibility of the members. Utilities and insurance on the space cost several hundred dollars a month, according to Ries, who is the club’s secretary. Proceeds from a donation box at the entrance to The Junction help defray those costs, said Ries, a retired computer industry technician living in Littleton.
“Right now we have between 100 and 120 visitors per week,” he said, “which in my opinion is great considering the virus. “
Ries said the nonprofit has seen membership growth since moving to Rocky Mount. Its members live as far away as Raleigh, Durham and Wake Forest.
“We’re one of the biggest model rail clubs on the East Coast,” he said.
Model railroad enthusiasts can spend years building their elaborate displays, and the patience required in their intricate work is increasingly at odds with today’s ethics of instant gratification.
The Tennessee-based National Model Railroad Association reports 18,000 active members across the country. Thanks to the club’s Facebook page and YouTube videos, information about The Junction has spread among model train enthusiasts across the country, many of whom have ventured to Rocky Mount to check out the club’s exhibits, which meander through the room on four separate railway tracks.
“There are also the train guys,” Ries said of his fellow railroad enthusiasts in the United States. “It’s not just the general public who come to see us.”