An Emmy-winning documentary that Winston-Salem’s Robert Van Camp made nearly 20 years ago about the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad has spawned one of public television’s most lucrative franchises and turned its creator into a hero among train historians.
That first documentary, “Great Scenic Railway Journeys,” debuted in early 1994 and quickly grew into a popular PBS series that premieres its 13th installment on UNC-TV next week.
The filmmaker’s latest offering, “Trains Around North America,” includes a segment that nods back to Van Camp’s beginnings — the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — as well as 16 other tourist railways spanning geographically from Texas to the Canadian Pacific.
The series is hosted by David Holt, a Grammy Award-winning storyteller and singer from North Carolina.
But the trains are the stars here.
“I wasn’t really a train person,” said Van Camp. “I’m a historian. I love history. ... But these railways are direct links to the past. You tell the stories about these people for 20 years and you become passionate about what they’re passionate about.”
Van Camp says he’s actually saved and restored three historic railway cars in recent years, including a Jim Crow-era car featured in one of his films.
Van Camp is also a tireless advocate for public television. He travels across the nation, appearing at 40 to 45 public television station pledge drives each year. His films are strong money-makers for the stations — broadcasts of his films drew $57,000 in pledges for UNC-TV last year — but he also believes in the trains and the people who keep them going.
“I try to tell some really good stories,” he said. “And try to inspire people that this is something important to save.”
When Van Camp gave the keynote address at a joint convention of the Tourist Railway Association and the Association of Railroad Museums in 2011, the reception of his work was overwhelmingly positive.
“People told me, ‘You’re helping keep our industry alive by introducing people to railroading and museums,’” he said.
All of the trains Van Camp features in his films are a part of public railways or museums open to the public.
The “Great Scenic Railway Journeys” series, which has been nominated for more than 50 Emmys and has won 13, is syndicated to PBS stations across the nation and is highly rated on the Travel Channel UK, which broadcasts in Europe, the Middle East, South Africa and the Asia Pacific.
Van Camp was raised in Boston but moved to North Carolina when he was 17. He graduated from UNC-Greensboro and ran the Winston-Salem bureau of WFMY-TV out of Greensboro until he left in 1993 to make films on his own.
Van Camp will appear during six studio breaks of the UNC-TV debut of “Trains Around North America” on Tuesday at 8 p.m. During repeats of some of his previous films on Saturday, Van Camp will appear during breaks with series host David Holt.