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Railroads in North Carolina

This month, Documenting the American South highlights the historical development of railroads in North Carolina, beginning with several key events in 1828. From tentative rail connections between a handful of selected cities, these railroads grew into staples of industry and passenger travel, linking to important places in neighboring states and beyond. Though the subsequent development of federal highways and air travel has rendered North Carolina's railways less crucial for some purposes, these documents from the North Carolina Experience collection reveal a great deal about the state's political and economic situation in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as its competitive relations with neighboring states and the tumultuous nature of the railroad industry during the nineteenth century.

Since the 1830s, railroads have contributed to North Carolina's economy and facilitated passenger travel for business, government, and pleasure. Before the Civil War, North Carolina lagged behind neighboring Virginia and South Carolina in the development of railroads, and some jeeringly called it the "Rip Van Winkle state"—suggesting that North Carolinians needed to wake up and take advantage of new technology. However, with the 1849 passage of the North Carolina Railroad charter bill, the state government demonstrated its commitment to infrastructural development, pledging $2 million in tax dollars and later augmenting the total to $3 million. After a five-year construction project, the railroad—linking Goldsboro to Salisbury, Charlotte, and other points south—began turning a profit (Kickler). In addition to this line, the state was also served by a variety of other routes and railroad companies, some owned and operated by external investors. The largest operator was the Southern Railway, a Charleston-based conglomeration of almost 150 predecessor lines that were "combined and reorganized" through a series of mergers and acquisitions (Kickler). During the Civil War, railroads became a strategic resource as well as a target; as Sallie Loy and others describe in their history The Southern Railway, "for four years the railroads of the South were fought over, destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again," and by the end of the war they "lay in ruins" (pp. 7-8). But they did not remain in that condition for long. As Alan Coleman notes, "cross ties and rails were laid across almost every conceivable terrain: tidal marshes, sand hills, rolling piedmont, and mountain grades" ("P&W"). By the turn of the century, railroad tracks linked North Carolina to every adjacent state, providing easy transport from north to south and from the mountains to the coast.

The report from an 1828 meeting between citizens of Chatham, Randolph, Guilford, and Orange counties describes the construction of a "Central Rail-Road" that would connect "some seaport to the capital of the state, and then [continue] by a middle course to its western extremity" (pp. 1-2). Participants elected James Mebane as chairman and Dennis Heartt as secretary of a committee that would advise "the citizens of North-Carolina" on the "importance and necessity of improving the state by the construction of a Central Rail-Road" (p.1). The address that follows, coauthored by Mebane and Heartt, not only outlines the reasons for building a railroad, but also reveals the hard economic times North Carolinians were experiencing in the late 1820s and the competitive disadvantage from which North Carolina suffered relative to neighboring states who had taken an earlier initiative in improving their transportation capabilities.

In The Numbers of Carlton, also published in 1828, Joseph Caldwell—a former "Presiding Professor" and the first president of the University of North Carolina, writing under the pseudonym "Carlton"—argued that "the people of North Carolina have for some years past evinced a disposition to facilitate the means of commercial intercourse, both foreign and domestic" (Kirkman; p. 3). Their failure to do so, Caldwell suggested, was due to geographic, economic, and political reasons: "the very nature of our country, as well as the sparseness of our population" made united efforts difficult. Moreover, "funds . . . had been with difficulty procured," and "works begun with sanguine hopes . . . soon terminated in little or nothing" (p. 4). One reason for these unsatisfactory results was that "architects and engineers"—the planners of state-funded infrastructure projects—intentionally underestimated the time and cost required to complete them, in order to convince the public to support the projects, a practice that Caldwell denounces as "absolute knavery" (p. 5). In the over 200 pages that follow, Caldwell analyzes the comparative costs of travel and freight by railroads, canals, and turnpikes, extols the untiring powers of locomotives, and explains the benefits of railroads for every North Carolinian.

In one particularly sentimental passage, Caldwell compares the difference between hauling goods to a nearby railroad to the plight of a man who must transport his own goods to market:

being from home a week, a fortnight, three weeks or a month, upon a continual expense, away from his family, his horses often tugging and plunging through deep and heavy roads, and drenching rains till their hearts are broken, himself in continual exposure to the weather as it comes, by night and day, till his own is ready to break, to get his produce to an uncertain market, where every article he purchases has its price augmented by a succession of freights, cartages, and storages. He at length returns to his family, and they scarcely know him. How should they? He is haggard and weather-beaten . . . . The wear and tear of his team, his waggon, and his gear, are no small items in the account of expenses, by which his profits are reduced. (pp. 46-47)

Such passages reveal not only Caldwell's emotional investment in the future of railroads in North Carolina, but also his seeming commitment to the sentimental literary tradition that would eventually reach its popular apex with Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like Stowe, Caldwell appeals directly to his readers: "Shall we persist to sit motionless in this morbid state of imaginary helplessness, and like the man of glass, refuse to exert ourselves, lest we break into a thousand pieces?" (pp. 66-67). In his lengthy volume, Caldwell argues that North Carolina needs to embrace the new technology of railroads. He worries that "the farmer of North-Carolina is labouring under disadvantages in comparison with the farmer of other states" (p. 152), and he proposes an extensive rail network as a solution.

An 1851 list of minutes from a stockholders' meeting of the North Carolina Rail Road Company reveals that the efforts of Mebane, Heartt, and Caldwell were successful, as construction on the railroad was about to begin. The document consists of a three-page "President's Report" from John M. Morehead of Greensboro, a detailed list of projected construction expenses from treasurer Jed H. Lindsay, a roster of the "Engineer Corps now in the service of the North Carolina Rail Road Company," a list of twelve recently elected Directors, a letter of support from former governor (then Secretary of the Navy) William A. Graham, and a table of by-laws presented by former North Carolina Governor (then President of the University of North Carolina) David L. Swain. The Board of Directors had decided upon the route for the railroad, which would run "from the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad by Waynesborough, some four miles north of Smithfield, by Raleigh, Hillsborough, Graham, Greensborough, Lexington, Salisbury, Concord, to Charlotte, 223 miles in length" and would cost an estimated $3,405,133.00 (pp. 4-5). In addition to a veritable "who's who" of North Carolina leaders from business and government, the document reveals concerns about graft in the directors' methods of issuing contracts, and several members call for transparency in the process.

By 1856, when stockholders convened for the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad, company president R. A. Hamilton could proudly claim that "the completion of the North-Carolina Railroad. . . [has] opened to the markets of the East a most fertile section of country hitherto, to a great extent, unconnected with the markets on tide water" (p. 7). Hamilton notes that the year ending in September 1855 was less profitable than the previous year, due to droughts, a severe winter, and other causes, but cheered by the prospects of linking the R & G to the North Carolina Railroad and other rail lines, he anticipates that "we may look with confidence to the advantages to be hereafter derived from our connection with that Road" (pp. 6-7). Troy Kickler of the North Carolina History Project points out that while such rail connections did indeed expand trade and economic growth in remote parts of the state, they also had unforeseen results: "Although consumer choices increased, it ensured that North Carolina remained mainly a supplier of staple crops in a larger system of free trade." Thus, unfortunately for North Carolinians, "New Englanders . . . benefited more from the North Carolina Railroad than did Tar Heels, who chose to import goods instead of diversifying their agricultural economy" (Kickler).

An 1859 time table for the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad reveals the extensive safety measures mandated of train engineers and operators in order to safeguard "life and limb, as well as property" (p. 11). Because the first category outweighed the second, freight trains were ordered to "keep out of the way of Passenger Trains" and to "proceed cautiously" if passenger trains ran over an hour late (p. 8). Caution was apparently the watchword of the railroad company, for the time table instructs engineers to "proceed cautiously" amidst various circumstances: this phrase appears ten times in the 13-page document. In order to ensure caution, the company stressed accountability, noting that engineers would be ordered to provide written explanations for "a variation of 5 minutes in arriving at or leaving any Station" and that "all Brake-men hereafter found away from their places without orders, when the train is in motion, must be punished properly" (pp. 10-11). Other safety measures included "slow running around curves," speed limits for freight trains, and standard whistle signals for backing a train (pp. 9-12).

In 1877, Walter McKenzie Clark published the History of the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad Company. Clark, a self-identified "Attorney at Law" who later became the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, provides a comprehensive record of the legislation passed by North Carolina's General Assembly as it affected the growth and development of the railroad from 1835 forward. Clark demonstrates how crucial public investment was to the development of North Carolina's railways. After the foreclosure of the R & G, he notes, "the State of North Carolina . . . bought the entire property and franchises. It was then run entirely as a State institution until its reorganization under the acts of the General Assembly" in 1851 (p. 137). The document also includes an interesting "Table of Annual Receipts from Freight and Passengers" which charts the steady growth in the railroad's profits from the 1840s through its exponential growth in the late 1850s, culminating in the Civil War—its most profitable years in existence (p. 141). Like the other documents summarized above, Clark's volume offers more than the history of a single rail line; it provides a microcosmic view of the growth of railroads across North Carolina and the nation during the middle of the nineteenth century, from their impetus as local, parochial endeavors to their eventual linkage of a vast and growing nation.

Works Consulted: Coleman, Alan, Railroads of North Carolina, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008; Coleman, Alan, "The P&W Supplement to Railroads of North Carolina," Guide to past and present North Carolina railroads, Piedmont & Western Railroad, 26 May 2010; "Governors of North Carolina," Office of Governor Bev Perdue, 2 June 2010; Kickler, Troy L., "North Carolina Railroad," North Carolina History Project, John Locke Foundation, 20 May 2010, ; Kirkman, Roger N., "Joseph Caldwell, 1773-1835," Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, ed. William S. Powell, Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1996, 2 June 2010; Larson, Jennifer L., "Walter McKenzie Clark: A Leader in Women's Rights," Documenting the American South, referenced 12 June 2010, ; Loy, Sallie, et al., The Southern Railway, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.

Patrick E. Horn