"The Negro Motorist Green Book" was an essential tool for the black motorist in the first half of the 20th century. In the American South, the early decades of motoring overlapped with the region's most virulently racist "Jim Crow" era. Black motorists were confronted by challenges largely unknown to white travelers, and a slight misreading of the local racial norms could turn the most commonplace activity into one that brought down on them humiliation, brutality, or death. Many black motorists would not take to the roads without their copy of The Green Book; it was their bible for discovering safe places.
The roundabout – a type of traffic intersection where multiple roads converge, like the spokes on a wheel, onto a central hub – has been used around the world for centuries. But it is relatively new to North Carolina's roads, and the roundabouts that are proliferating around our state seem to trigger acute anxiety in many drivers as they approach one. But with anxiety comes heightened awareness, and that is part of the secret behind roundabouts saving lives.
In 1950, Lee Petty showed up at a stock car event with his race car painted bright blue. The color would become known as "Petty Blue" and would become a signature look for generations of racing Pettys, including Richard and Kyle. In today's world of intense branding, you would expect such a color to have been carefully designed and maybe even tested in focus groups before appearing in public. In truth, Petty Blue resulted from a random mix of paint remnants by a man who was just trying to help neighbor Lee Petty by making his Plymouth look better for an upcoming Saturday race.
Regulatory speed limits on public roads are not a modern phenomenon, much less a by-product of the automobile. Horses sped, too. But the early-1900s proliferation of autos on our roads – and the terror those noisy, lurching machines inflicted on the animals that had dominated the roads for 300 years – certainly brought a new sense of urgency to requiring people to refrain from "driving furiously."
The earliest American railroads tended to be drab, but in the mid-1800s, colorful locomotives became all the rage. The North Carolina Railroad was on board with the trend, painting its rolling stock in bright colors and bestowing memorable names taken from mythology, North Carolina geography, or prominent citizens. That colorful tradition lives on today.
Among the litany of hazards that made riding on early American railroads a moment-to-moment adventure was the not-farfetched possibility of a collision with an animal. Impact with a dog, hog, or even a sheep that had wandered onto the tracks might not even be noticed by passengers and crew. But as one engineer put it, "Them there cows are the devil to pay." The all-American solution to a very American problem was a "cowcatcher" mounted to the front of the engine.
America in the 1800s was still a country built around the farm, where the time of day was reckoned in broad terms: sunrise and sunset; daylight and nighttime; breakfast, dinner and supper. In a small town, where stores had business hours, churches scheduled services, and a court might hold session, a stricter calculation of time was more important. But each town kept its own time with little concern for the next town down the dirt road. Then the railroads came, imposing Standard Railroad Time.
As the Industrial Revolution produced mechanical devices to perform work, it was only natural to compare the productivity of an engine to that of the animals that had historically provided the muscle. So why don't we talk about oxenpower or bullpower? And why was horsepower actually based on the work capacity of Shetland ponies. And not to get too picky, why is "one horsepower" not the amount of work one horse could accomplish in a given time?
Today's highways pass over our states many rivers on bridges so efficient that the driver is scarcely conscious of the flowing water below. But before bridges were common – that is, through most of our North Carolina history – crossing a river often meant relying on a private ferry, an indispensable component of travel all across our state for hundreds of years.
In the very early years of the 20th century, automobiles were just beginning to appear on streets around the country. The Glidden Tour, a long-distance "reliability and endurance tour," would give many a small town – including in North Carolina – its first sighting of an automobile. And the yearly event would go a long way toward convincing a wary public that the auto age was here to stay.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.