The tale of how Spencer Shops, now home of the N.C. Transportation Museum, came to be located in a rural area just north of the city of Salisbury includes secret land deals with a former U.S. Representative, a railroad needing to keep locomotives on the move, and a wealthy African American landowner in 1890s Rowan County.
When Southern Railway formed in 1894, the company expanded quickly, purchasing other railroads to extend its reach. With that expansion came the need for more maintenance facilities – designed specifically to keep steam locomotives moving people, goods, and raw materials up and down the east coast.
In the late 1800s, steam-powered trains would travel about 150 miles before the locomotive would be switched out for another. Following maintenance, that locomotive would be sent back onto the rails to pull another train.
The biggest need for a facility was between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia. A new shop in between those cities, with smaller shops at the quarter marks, would divide the route into 160-mile sections.
Charlotte, North Carolina seemed a natural choice, with its existing infrastructure, but surveys showed that the Rowan County city of Salisbury, about 50 miles north of the Charlotte, was more centrally located between D.C. and Atlanta.
At this point, two Rowan County men entered the picture – John Steele Henderson and Robert Partee.
Defeated in the 1895 election after serving five terms, former-U.S. Representative Henderson was one of the Rowan’s largest landowners. Without his congressional position, however, Henderson was looking for employment. Instead, he found an opportunity.
Unsuccessfully seeking a position with Southern Railway, Henderson learned the company was considering a maintenance facility in Rowan County. He entered secret negotiations with the railroad, offering to quietly purchase the land for Southern Railway at a cheaper rate than the corporation could manage. He could lower the railroad’s costs, while making a small profit for himself. Southern officials agreed, and the first and largest tract of land purchased was from Robert Partee.
Partee was born in 1847. He was of mixed race, listed as “mulatto” on census records. Despite the hardships for a man of color in the post-Civil War south, Partee was a successful farmer and substantial landowner. There is unconfirmed evidence from his descendants that Robert Partee was related to the Henderson family, and that John Steele Henderson may have been his uncle.
In 1880, at the age of 33, Partee had purchased more than 100 acres of land from Henderson at a cost of $712 or about $7 an acre. When Henderson approached Partee sixteen years later, in 1896, it was to buy that land back.
February 8, of 1896, Robert Partee and his wife, Margaret, sold 101.8 acres of land just north of Salisbury for $24.50/acre. The nearly $2500 was more than triple Partee’s purchase price and far exceeded the average price of Rowan County farmland at the time.
Henderson re-sold the “Partee Tract” to Southern Railway later that month for what he had paid Partee, with an additional 40 acres of his own land that bordered the tract. With additional purchases, Henderson sold Southern Railway more than 160 acres to be used for a new the steam locomotive facility.
Henderson also allegedly guaranteed the property would never be annexed by the city of Salisbury, reducing the railroad’s tax burden. When the deal became public, a group of Charlotteans visited Southern President Samuel Spencer to ask him to reconsider locating in the Queen City. He is reported to have told them, “If you were to give the land free and build the shops at your own expense, turning them over to us at present, we could not accept them located in Charlotte.”
It was a sound financial deal for Southern Railway. John Steele Henderson benefitted from sales of additional land surrounding the facility. Robert Partee and wife Margaret also made a handsome profit.
Ground was broken on Spencer Shops in March of 1896. It would become Southern Railway’s largest steam locomotive repair facility in the southeast and employed as many as 3000 workers during its peak of operations in the late 1940s. The town of Spencer was created around the shops. And when Southern Railway relocated to a more diesel-friendly repair facility in the late 1970s, Spencer Shops became the N.C. Transportation Museum.