Want to yell “all aboard” from a retired steam locomotive, boxcar and caboose? Walk right on one then and wail away at the Wilmington Railroad Museum.
Also, just south of North Carolina’s “Port City,” the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher gives various “Behind the Scenes” tours, showing how much tender care, work and preparation go on the other side of the walls for each exhibit, in and out of the water.
Railing back in history
The railroad museum, which relocated in 2007 to a former railside warehouse, lets visitors walk through history, back to the early 1800s, when stagecoach and foot were the common transportation. Pulled by horsepower, the trip between Boston and New York would take 39 hours.
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With railroads’ establishment, though, development stepped up opening the nation westward. Displays break down each player’s role defined inside a train, such as how engineers needed to know the location of every trackside light signal, curve and any slight change of grade in a 100- to 150-mile stretch.
Brakemen, who used to scale the tops of train cars in motion and turn back wheels on each car, benefited from technology and the advent of air brakes, so that switching and coupling cars happens with hand-activated track adjustments. A fireman, who would operate boilers on steam engines, co-pilots a train with the engineer, and in this diesel age, remains a “second set of eyes” for trains.
Conductors, not engineers, are known as the captains of trains, doing much more than collect tickets from fare-paying customers, but keeping track of all freight and passengers. The “chief of the train” title arose in the 1830s, when the first trains were manned by many former steamboat or coastal pallet (small boat) captains.
Railroads, their U.S. military use debuting in the Civil War, used Morse code communication early on. Guests can practice tapping out an electronic telegraph message, sounds and all, in another room.
David Hurd, a museum volunteer chatting with guests, said on a Saturday morning that “no two people have the exact same rhythm,” and that the “SOS” signal – three short taps, three longs, three shorts – preceded a simple sequence that 911 serves today by phone.
Hurd also marveled at how railroads – and later, cars, trucks and motorcycles – transformed transportation that had gone unchanged from the foot, horse and wheel in the previous 5,000 years, and that George Washington had the same modes for moving as did pharaohs in Egypt.
“The communications revolution keeps going,” Hurd said, citing all the cellphone technology still rolling out, “but the transportation revolution has ended.”
Parents might enjoy engaging in “I Spy” games with checklists that will prompt hunts to scour the whole museum, and two rooms of model layouts covering HO, N and O gauges are ripe for play by everyone of any age. Each comes with buttons to press for lights and accessories, such as a toot sound, two playground swings, a drive-through window and a gas station garage, all around the Lionel layout.
Outside the museum, step into a Baldwin locomotive in use from 1910 to the ‘50s. Walk through a caboose that rode the rails from 1968 to ’82, with a cupola that youth delight in climbing.
Back inside, a sign might sum up railroads’ attraction that avoids aging: “We don’t stop playing with trains because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing with trains.”
Life on the other side
On a Sunday afternoon at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Echo Woodsford led one of its various “Behind the Scenes” tours, showing how the space to stock and maintain exhibits might easily double or triple what visitors see behind the glass throughout the aquarium.
The two families Woodsford led for about an hour also walked outside the building to look at the greenhouse staffed by two horticulturalists to grow all the plants – including carnivorous venus flytraps – filling the exhibits. She also spoke about “green” measures in effect, such as the 1,500-gallon rooftop cisterns that save rainwater for use inside, and how, as Ripley’s Aquarium does in Myrtle Beach, this site also makes its own saltwater instead of piping it in from the ocean nearby.
Going through the quarantine area, the group saw a slew of animals big and small. With mostly local species showcased through the aquarium, any critters brought in, such as toads, turtles and snakes, have to wait out a period before placement in exhibits for their health and safety and that of the residents, Woodsford said. Others in the rooms help as ambassadors for education on field trips to schools or are in back awaiting their turn in the limelight.
Woodsford, who began her career at the aquarium as a high school volunteer, giving more than 1,000 hours of service in all areas of the building, works there in education while pursuing a marine biology degree.
She shared some tidbits while guiding the tour group, such as how diamondback terrapins are the only kind of snakes living in brackish waters, and a trio of 3 1/2-year-old alligators, named Bone, Mo and Unagi, are each distinguished by their stripe patterns.
Standing in front of a deep freezer taller than her and kept at 10 degrees below zero F, Woodsford said it’s loaded with a wealth of staples for its fresh- and saltwater clientele, including smelt, squid and shrimp, all of which is supplemented with vitamins. Through a tall net surrounding a holding pool, she counted three juvenile sand tiger sharks swimming around.
The aquarium, built for hurricane hardiness and backed a generator, utilizes three types of filtration systems: bio, for bacteria; technical, for ozone; and mechanical, with bags and filters, Woodsford said.
Letting the tour gang look down from atop the two-story Cape Fear Shoals dive tank, she said about the 120 inhabitants cover about 30 species, including a green sea turtle, only 2 or 3 years old, which surfaced frequently for air.
In the breeding quarters, life doesn’t grow at a gallop, not for lion seahorses, kept in various tanks based on age. Four tanks each had taped notes to denote when their seahorses were born: one with black specimens living for two months to one with babies only four days old, which looked like little, transparent specs, the size of toothpicks a half-inch tall.
Woodsford imparted some other incredulities about these carnivorous fish: They mate for life, and the males carry the eggs until they emerge from their pouch.