Looking at a North Carolina map, one can see that the state is rich in flowing waters. But in the 1700s and 1800s, when transportation on the water was the most efficient means of travel, our unhelpful rivers were a barrier to colonization and an impediment to growth of the state’s economy.
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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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.