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

There was popular demand to build North Carolina's first railroads, but there was also strong opposition.

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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.

North Carolina both demanded and resisted the railroad.

1830 was a threshold year for railroads in the United States. In the north, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began operations. And on Christmas day of that year, the Charleston Canal & Rail Road Company – with its little steam engine Best Friend of Charleston – announced the arrival of an operational rail line in neighboring South Carolina.

North Carolina was no laggard in exploring the possibilities of rail. Joseph Caldwell, first President of the University of North Carolina, led a public relations campaign to proclaim the immense potential of railroads. Speaking to 200 citizens at a 1828 public meeting, Caldwell warned of the danger of the state – which was already known derisively as “The Rip Van Winkle State” – being left behind as competitor states rushed to take advantage of the new technnology:

Portrait of Joseph Caldwell
Joseph Caldwell

While other states of this union have for many years actively and successfully exerted themselves in opening the opportunities of commerce to their people, North Carolina has unhappily languished under a spirit of despondency in regard to the possibility of ever attaining to similar privileges.

Baby steps toward North Carolina's first railroads.

In 1830, Fayetteville and Raleigh set up Experimental Railroad demonstrations, giving many North Carolinians their first glimpse of the new fire-belching technology and stimulating great public interest. In 1834, the legislature chartered a rail line connecting Fayetteville and Campbellton, 2 miles away on the Cape Fear River, and it was completed in September of that year. The little railroad was a step forward, but it was too short to be economically viable, and the line’s cars were still drawn by horses.

Humble as they were, these efforts stoked the fire of popular enthusiasm for railroads in North Carolina.

The one-percenters weigh in: No.

But there was also extreme antipathy to rail from powerful interests. Wealthy planters in the northeastern part of the state – the equivalent of what we call “one-percenters” today – objected on several grounds. Some were dead set against any government funds being used to build railroads (or any other internal improvements such as plank roads and canals). Even private funding was wrong, they maintained, because it might be a gateway to public funding. (Fear of the “slippery slope” is not new.)

Some condemned railroads on straightforward, if questionable, cost/benefit grounds:

…their construction had occasioned a heavy loss to the state without adequate return; and that, consequently, they deserved not the fostering care of the public.

Nathaniel Macon, a northeastern patrician planter and esteemed politician – he would represent North Carolina in both the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Senate – felt that any endeavor that stimulated capitalism was akin to gambling. It was trying to get something for nothing. He cautioned:

Portrait of Nathaniel Macon
Nathaniel Macon

Let not love of improvement, or a thirst for glory blind that sound common sense with which the Lord has blessed you.

Other wealthy planters clothed their objections in concern for the poor. Edgecombe County was ground zero for anti-government sentiment and resistance to change, and the Tarboro Free Press, Edgecombe’s strident voice, supported this sentiment:

It is also said by some that those incorporated companies for internal improvements, and manufactures, etc. are making the poor poorer and the rich richer…those labor saving machines throw many of the poor laboring class of people out of employ or reduce their wages to a mere pittance.

The fear was that the people thrown out of work would return to the farm, causing over-production, or they would “resort to some dishonest means for a livelihood.”

But however the objections were cloaked, resistance to the railroad was often rooted in complacency. Many in the planter class were simply comfortable in their privileged life style and did not want to encourage any social change. It was an attitude they maintained even when proposed railroads promised to work largely to their own economic benefit.

A shifting balance of political power tilts towards railroads.

Despite rear guard opposition by conservatives, the balance of power in the state was shifting to the progressive Whig party. The Whigs were determined to have their internal improvements, including – maybe even especially – a railroad. As it happened, they would get two.

Next week: North Carolina’s First Railroads, part 2: Slovenly, but Invigorating. The Wilmington & Weldon Railroad and the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad arrive in a dead heat.

Featured image of an early railroad train courtesy NC Archives & History [N_81_8_20]

Image of Joseph Caldwell is courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Image of Nathaniel Macon is courtesy NC Archives & History [N_53_15_4518].

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Matt Bumgarner

    A technicality- the “Best Friend of Charleston” locomotive and trains were operated by he South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company. Charleston & Hamburg were the terminal points of the line, but that was NOT the name of the corporation.

    1. Michael

      Thanks for the correction, Matt. You are exactly right about the corporate name. I got it right in my earlier post on Best Friend of Charleston (https://movingnorthcarolina.net/best-friend-of-charleston/), but on this one I slipped back into the vernacular name. I fixed it on the post, going back to the official corporate name. Good catch.

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