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.
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.
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."
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.
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.