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.
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.