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Motorists paying the toll at a primative toll booth

Turnpikes and Shunpikes

The toll turnpike has a lineage that goes back to ancient times, even taking its name from a Medieval weapon. Privately constructed, for-profit turnpikes proliferated in 1800s North Carolina as – it was hoped – a remedy for the state’s deplorable roads. And of course wherever you find a turnpike, you are likely to find a shunpike.

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A gigantic container cargo ship

Malcolm McLean: World Changer

Gigantic modern cargo vessels – with their cargoes neatly stored in individual containers stacked on deck – are the backbone of the global economy. These ships handle 90% of the world’s ocean trade, and the efficiencies they bring to maritime transportation have done more to lower the prices of imported goods than the often-cited low labor costs of Asia. Their connection to our state is that if you trace the story of their development, it takes you back to 1930s Maxton, North Carolina, where a young man named Malcolm McLean had saved up $120 to buy a used truck.

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A farmer controls his horse while a horseless carriage charges by.

From Horse Power to Horsepower: Fraught Coexistence

When the first horseless carriages appeared on our streets around 1900, Americans had been using animals for work and mobility for some 300 years. There were early adapters who jumped at the chance to own an automobile, but many North Carolinians were comfortable with their animals, and they dismissed the newfangled contraptions as playthings. Our relatively slow transition from horse power to horsepower left beast and machine in an extended period of sometimes fraught coexistence on the roads.

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An invitation to an 1854 Railroad Celebration

The North Carolina Railroad – Celebration!

A rail line across the state from Goldsboro to Charlotte would energize North Carolina and arouse it from the economic, educational and cultural stagnation that had earned it the derogatory nickname of “The Rip Van Winkle State.” So construction of the North Carolina Railroad in the 1850s was cause for great celebration up and down the line. Festivities often included rah-rah speeches, tooting brass bands, shrieking steam whistles, booming cannons, and lots and lots of barbecue.

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An early railroad construction crew at work

The North Carolina Railroad – Laying Track

Laying track across the state from Goldsboro to Charlotte in the 1850s was grueling physical work, but when the task was completed, it gave North Carolina a much-needed reason to celebrate. That’s not to say  the process of building the North Carolina Railroad was always pretty. It featured unrealistic budget projections; cost overruns; compromises in the quality of work over the objections of the man charged with oversight. The story reads like something on the front page of today’s newspaper.

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A logging crew in Transylvania County NC

Transportation and Deforestation

Both indigenous peoples and early European colonists in North Carolina cleared farmland. But their impact on the seemingly endless forest was miniscule. Later, when the woodlands became the basis for thriving export business in naval stores, oak lumber, and shingles, the scale of deforestation jumped significantly. And yet it still seemed as though the forests were so vast they could never be used up. But a century of steam power – especially in the form of railroads – would call that confidence into question.

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A photo of Yates Gristmill in Wake County, NC

The Gristmill: Creating Meal, Flour & Roads

An old gristmill sits beside a placid millpond, its water wheel rotating at a stately pace. It’s an iconic image of simplicity and serenity. But in their day, mills were complex, high-tech, noisy machines. And although the mill itself was stationary, gristmills were responsible not only for traffic, but for the very roads down which that traffic traveled – then and now. Colonial mills created many of the roads we still drive on today.

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A tobacco hogshead being pulled down a rolling road

Rolling Roads

When it came time to transport colonial North Carolina’s tobacco crop to market, wagons groaned under the weight of the half-ton hogsheads, and wagon wheels sank into the sandy soil of the coastal plain. Farmers overcame the problem by turning the hogsheads into rolling containers. By doing so, they created “rolling roads,” many of which became the roads we drive today.

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The words "We your humble petitioners" with a signature page from a 1700s North arolina road petition

Citizen’s Petition for a Road

As the population of colonial North Carolina increased, new settlements, mills, river fords, churches, and taverns, and other social nodes cropped up across the countryside. What was lacking was roads to connect them all. It was up to citizens to petition their county court for a road to be hacked through the seemingly endless forest. But they had better mind their language.

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Illustration of a steamboat on the Cape Fear River

The Steamboat: Wooding Up

In our automobile age, when the fuel gauge in our car gets toward “empty,” we look for a filling station where we can “gas up.” In the steamboat era, when his boat got low on firewood for the boiler, the captain looked for one of the many woodlots that dotted the banks. Pausing there, he could “wood up.”

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Drawing of an early steam locomotive

The North Carolina Railroad: Planning the Route

In 1849, legislation created The North Carolina Railroad – at least on paper. But before tracks could actually be laid, someone had to decide exactly where the line would run. Some of those decisions were driven by engineering considerations. Some decisions were shaped by demographics. And some decisions – we should not be surprised – were influenced by the voices of those with money and power.

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A scene on the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal: A New York Venture Helped Shape North Carolina

The Erie Canal across New York State was a marvel. The concept was visionary. The business plan was revolutionary. The engineering was inspiring. The Erie Canal forever changed New York State and the Midwest. It also taught far-away North Carolina lessons that helped the “Rip Van Winkle State” rouse itself from crippling economic stagnation.

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A horse trolley in Hendersonville, North Carolina

The Horse Trolley: A Slow Walk Toward a New City

From today’s perspective, nothing in the history of transportation seems more benign than the horse trolley, a phenomenon that flourished only briefly in the last decades of the 1800s. But these crude people-movers were the vanguard of a transportation revolution that would fundamentally change our concept of the city.

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A whimsical picture of a Roman chariot charging down an old set of railroad tracks

Railroad Track Gauge

Railroad track gauge is the distance between the two rails. In the United States today, the standard is set at 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches. That measurement was also almost exactly the standard distance between the wheels of Roman chariots. The similarity has led some to conclude that the current standard was passed down from Roman times. The story is actually much more interesting than that simple telling.

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A preserved lock on the historic Roanoke Canal

The Roanoke Canal

When rivers were our highways, the Roanoke River system was tantalizingly close to being a 400-mile-long superhighway. It had the potential to connect a bountiful Piedmont with seaports and far-flung markets. But at the fall line, where the river tumbled down to the coastal plain, roiling, bolder-strewn rapids brought heavily laden boats to a standstill. Maybe a canal could circumvent those rough waters…

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The cover page of The Journal of the Internal Improvements Convention, 1833

Internal Improvements and the Soul of America

North Carolina’s 1800s debate over internal improvements – essentially a public policy debate over transportation infrastructure – was often a tactical battle over a specific canal, turnpike or railroad project. But it was also a broad referendum on the soul of America, and that aspect of the 1800’s debate lives on even today.

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A drawing of the steam engine "Raleigh," which ran on one of North Carolina's first railroads

North Carolina’s First Railroads, part 2

As the balance of political power in 1830s North Carolina shifted from the conservative Democratic Party to the progressive Whig party, it became apparent that after years of debate, North Carolina’s first railroads would be built. Left to be decided was where those rail lines would lie on the land and who would build them.

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A drawing of a first railroad from the 1830s

North Carolina’s First Railroads, part 1: Anticipation & Resistance

In the late 1820s and early 1830s, there was great public excitement about the prospect of building North Carolina’s first railroads. Our state was one of the first to show interest in the new technology. But powerful conservative voices resisted the intrusion of this modern contraption into a hallowed economic and social order. It would be a decade before North Carolina had an operational railroad.

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Michael Braun's 1766 house

The Great Wagon Road part 2: Shaping North Carolina

In the 1700s, The Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia to North Carolina was the conduit for one of the great migrations in United States history. German and Scotch-Irish colonists flooded south in search of land to homestead. The legacy of those immigrants from so long ago is is very much a part of who we are as a state today.

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A family of settlers on the Great Wagon Road

The Great Wagon Road part 1: Flooding South

In the mid-1700s, German and Scotch-Irish colonists flooded south from Pennsylvania down The Great Wagon Road to North Carolina and beyond. It was a decades-long migration of epic proportions, and it marked a social upheaval that reconfigured the demographics of the colonies in ways that still reverberate today.

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Portrait of Senator Calvin Graves

Senator Graves Votes His Conscience

In January of 1849, a potentially historic, but highly contentious railroad act came before a polarized North Carolina Senate. The House had passed the bill, but only by a narrow margin. In the Senate, floor debate was acrimonious. Then the vote was called. Deadlock: 22 ayes; 22 nays. A hush fell over the chamber and all eyes turned to the dais, where President of the Senate Calvin Graves rose to cast the deciding vote.

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A Stanley Steam Motor Carriage

Steam Powered Automobiles

When automobiles started appearing on US roads around 1900, the technology for a steam powered automobile had already been around since the late 1700’s. Clean, quiet, and world-record fast, steamers led the United States market for motor carriages.

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Wagons crossing a rocky river bed

River Fords: Let Us Cross Over…

For most of North Carolina History, bridges were not common, and travelers confronted by one of our state’s many, many streams simply had to find a place where they could cross over. Those coveted spots – river fords – often dictated where we live today.

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Best Friend of Charleston

Best Friend of Charleston

The little steam engine “Best Friend of Charleston” made its inaugural run on Christmas Day, 1830, “like a live rocket scattering sparks and flames.” The train’s passengers were too amazed to be scared.

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An advertisement for a ride on the first experimental railroad in North Carolina.

Experimental Railroads

At the dawn of the age of railroads in the United States, one North Carolina visionary proposed we stride boldly into the new age by building a rail line across the entire state. Instead, two cities built modest experimental railroads as baby steps to test the utility and appeal of the new technology.

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Repairing a road with primitive equipment

The Corvée

Under the corvée system, North Carolina constructed and maintained roads by requiring citizens who lived along the route to turn out for work. It was a practice that dated back to the
Roman Empire, and it lived on in the United States until 1913.

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A flat-bottom barge on the Dismal Swamp Canal

The Dismal Swamp Canal – Splash & Ripple

After 63 years of speculation on feasibility of a Dismal Swamp Canal, and after four years of acrimonious debate on government’s role in such an undertaking, actual excavation began. There was no civil engineer engaged. There was no understanding of how many canal locks would be required. There was no estimate of how much the project would cost. And yet…

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A map of the Great Dismal Swamp

The Dismal Swamp Canal – Genesis

With no quality seaports available to them in North Carolina, colonial plantation owners looked longingly at the bustling port of Norfolk as a jumping-off point for external markets. But how could they transport goods north? Hey, why not dig a canal? All that stood in the way was 2,200 square miles of “… a vast Body of mire and Nastiness.”

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A log cabin

The Ordinary

An ordinary (which later would be called a “tavern” or “inn”), was a licensed business providing alcoholic beverages, hot meals, and a place to rest for the night. Ordinaries dotted the roads in colonial North Carolina, and they often served as hub around which a new town would accrete. An ordinary could be upscale, but as one traveler reported, they could also be remarkably crude.

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A drawing of the steamboat Prometheus

The Steamboat Prometheus

The age of steamboats began in North Carolina in 1818, when the vessels Norfolk, Henrietta, and Prometheus began huffing and puffing along our waterways. Prometheus, a little sternwheeler, was built in Swansboro by the naval hero, chartered privateer, and entrepreneur, Otway Burns.

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Drawing of an early stage coach

The Stagecoach

In the western movies many of us watched as kids, stagecoaches would glide across a majestic landscape with passengers jostled just enough to suggest motion. Those who traveled in real stagecoaches described a very different experience.

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The covered bridge at Bynum, NC

Spooky Covered Bridges

Covered bridges have a nostalgic appeal for us today, quaint relics of an idyllic past. But they were obstructive, spooky, and not so popular with the people who actually had to use them.

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Members of the North Carolina Good Roads Movement

The Good Roads Association

At the dawn of what would become the automobile age, not everyone was enthusiastic about the prospect of building modern roads, much less a state-wide highway system. Certainly the legislature did not see any role for state funds in such an undertaking. But the North Carolina Good Roads Association saw it differently, and it took the cause to the people.

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Gilbert S. Waters sits in his Buggymobile

Mr. Waters Builds a Buggymobile

In 1899, Gilbert Waters traveled to Baltimore where he saw the future: self-propelled vehicles motoring down the streets. Back in his New Bern workshop, Waters created the Buggymobile, possibly the first automobile built in the south. Early on, the principal difference between Gilbert Waters and his contemporary Henry Ford was that one secured funding for a new business.

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A drawing of an odd assortment of men riding in an early railroad coach

Democracy on Rails

Early American rail service reflected the segregation by race and gender that was inherent in society at the time. But for foreigners traveling by rail in the American south, it was the cars reserved for white men that flummoxed them. There these travelers witnessed a rampant spirit of democracy that struck many as inappropriate and possibly dangerous.

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Rip Van Winkle

The Rip Van Winkle State

In the 1700s, adventurous North Carolinians treked west over the mountains, lured by the promise of a better life. In the early 1800s, those who followed their footsteps were were not lured; they were propelled by an untenable existence in North Carolina. Any life would be preferable to the economic and cultural stagnation of “The Rip Van Winkle State.”

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The Timelessness of Budget Knavery

When it comes to today’s large-scale infrastructure projects, we are used to advocates painting a rosy picture of fiscal prudence and fabulous benefits. Joseph Caldwell had something to say about this “budget knavery” nearly 200 years ago.

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Hog Drovers on the Buncombe Turnpike

Hogging the Buncombe Turnpike

When the Buncombe Turnpike was completed in 1828, it was one of the best roads in North Carolina. The new toll road energized the local economy and transformed an entire mountain region. But while many smelled economic opportunity, some smelled only swine.

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A boy rents boats on flooded Franklin Street

Boating on Franklin Street

In 1910, a heavy rain could turn North Carolina town and city streets – almost all yet unpaved – into ponds more suited to boats than to wheeled vehicles. Despite high ground and higher education, Franklin Street in Chapel Hill was no exception.

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A bicycle club in Oxford NC circa 1900

Bicycles Led The Way

In the 1920s, when automobile owners in North Carolina finally started to motor down decent roads, they owed a debt of gratitude to ardent bicyclists of the 1880s. Bicycle enthusiasts were early activists for the movement that would eventually make North Carolina the Good Roads State.

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Hay wagon on a plank road

Plank Road Fever

In the mid-1800s, North Carolina burned with an acute case of plank road fever. By lifting travelers above the omnipresent ruts and mires, wooden turnpikes promised to speed travel, to stimulate commerce, and to bring big profits to the companies that built and owned them. How could it fail?

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Train Wreck at Bostian Bridge

Disaster at Bostian Bridge

Early on the morning of August 27, 1891, Richmond & Danville Railroad Passenger Train No. 9 plunged off the Bostian Bridge just west of Statesville. Twenty-three people died. It was “A Great Wreck!” “A Frightful Accident!” It was also a mystery.

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Charles Dickens

Dickens on American Rail

Touring America in 1842, young Charles Dickens captured in his journal the manic exhilaration of traveling on early American railroads: “…on, on, on – tears the mad dragon of an engine with its train of cars…”

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A bateau on the Haw River loaded with cotton bales

Bateaux Ruled Our Rivers

When waterways were our superhighways, bateaux ruled the rivers. These open, shallow-draft boats did the heavy lifting that drove North Carolina’s economy. They transported the bounty of upland farms to markets on the coast, and they returned with manufactured goods, coffee and sugar.

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Coming Down The Road

Moving North Carolina will publish a new blog post every Sunday at noon, beginning August 4, 2019. Upcoming posts will feature bateaux, trains (snorting and plunging), road hogs, plank turnpikes, crusading bicyclists, and spooky bridges.

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