Railroad Recuperation

An illustration of a Civil War hospital car from Harper’s Weekly in 1864.

Editor's Note – In the summer of 2012, Ansley Wegner, a historian with our Research Branch, wrote a series of blog posts highlighting various historical destinations around the state. This is the second post in that series.

The Southeastern Rail Days event conitnues to be offered each June under the new name "Museum in Motion Festival."

One of my favorite exhibits at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer is a fully restored hospital railroad car – one of the few to survive into the 21st century.

The development of these mobile care centers really helped in the logistics of transporting wounded soldiers. On the home front during World War II, hospital rail cars were vitally important because of the sick and wounded who arrived daily from overseas.  Many of the patients still needed medical attention, care and supervision during the journeys to military hospitals.

The Museum’s hospital car, located in the last bay of the Bob Julian Roundhouse, is just one of the many interesting exhibits to encounter during the 2012 Southeastern Rail Days June 2 and 3 in Spencer.

A Brief History of the Hospital Car

Hospital rail cars actually date to the Civil War. Patients were transported by trains throughout the war—but the bumping and jerking of the rail cars caused further suffering. By 1864, a Union Army surgeon designed a means by which cots could be suspended by thick rubber belts so that they would not jostle the patients.

During World War II, the government purchased hospital cars of two principal types: ward cars and ward-dressing cars. Ward cars had wide aisles for carrying litters, patient beds, office space for nurses and cleaning facilities. Ward-dressing cars had all of the above plus a small area for attending to dressings or performing emergency surgical procedures. In a hospital train there were usually 2 ward cars to each ward-dressing car. The hospital cars were often pulled by regularly scheduled passenger trains. 

The restored hospital car at the N.C. Transportation Museum in SpencerNorth Carolina destinations for the army’s hospital cars included Camp Butner, Salisbury and Swannanoa.

Finding New Uses After World War II

After the war, the government sold off the surplus hospital cars—in fact Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus bought several! Kept in case of future need, some were eventually sent to Korea. Now, of course, the military uses trucks and airplanes to transport patients.

But, thanks to the Museum’s interactive exhibit, you can really get a feel for what it would have been like to travel the rails to recuperation.

Explore More About the N.C. Transportation Museum

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