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.
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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”