New in the collection: Hamlet ‘Hub’ license plate

Front license plate that reads "Hamlet, The Hub of the Seaboard."

“No Carolinas train tour can omit quaint Hamlet, just east of Rockingham. It was here that the rails of the Seaboard Air Line crossed and headed into the four cardinal directions. At the turn of the 20th century, more than 30 trains a day paused on journeys to New York, New Orleans, Norfolk and Florida.

“ ‘Hamlet was like the Charlotte airport is today,’ says Miranda Chavis, who manages the rail museum beside the restored 1900 passenger station built in grand Queen Anne Victorian style. ‘Small town, big railroads.’

“It was one of the nation’s earliest tourist traps. There were seven hotels and many boarding houses for transferring passengers in the town nicknamed “Hub of the Seaboard.” Shops and restaurants catered to visitors. There was an opera house where tenor Enrico Caruso once performed. Lavish accommodations were to be found at the Seaboard Hotel, which fronted the tracks.

“Hamlet, pop. 6,000, is still a railroad town. Amtrak stops twice a day, and Seaboard’s successor railroad CSX has a massive switching yard just outside town. In front of the Hamlet station, the tracks still cross and trains constantly thunder through, attracting train watchers. In the book ‘Guide to North American Railroad Hot Spots’ by J. David Ingles, Hamlet is listed as the prime watching spot for train fans in North Carolina.”

— From “Love of railroads spans the Carolinas” by Mark Washburn in the Charlotte Observer (May 26, 2013)


A sign, a door, a connection to past tragedy

“When newspapers reported in 1991 that a fire in a Hamlet, North Carolina, chicken-processing plant had killed 25 workers who were trapped by locked doors, labor historians  recalled the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City, in which 146 garment workers were killed. It was a tragedy that helped bring about modern worker-safety laws.

“We have very little [at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History]  that tells the Triangle story and didn’t want to leave the curators of the future with as little about Hamlet. And so a trip to Hamlet, along with extensive negotiations with state and federal officials, secured a factory sign, one of the infamous locked doors, and other artifacts.”

— From “What Do We Keep?” by curators Steven Lubar and Peter Liebhold in American Heritage, spring 1999

Jim Crow trains put black passengers at risk

On this day in 1911: In Hamlet a freight train and a passenger train collide head-on, killing seven passengers and injuring 25. The passenger train had been loaded with Durham Sunday school members on an excursion to Charlotte.

“Jim Crow service, using old wooden cars sandwiched between the newer steel ones, [subjected] those in the wooden cars to extreme danger…. ” Jean Bradley Anderson writes in “Durham County.” “In the collision the wooden cars had splintered and compacted like accordions.”

A Charlotte Observer correspondent reported from the scene that “An old railroad man expressed the opinion… that the frail construction of the cars had something to do with the great damage.”

Black leaders would later call for railroad regulations to require either all wood or all steel cars on each train.