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The North Carolina Railroad: Planning the Route

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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 consideration. 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 North Carolina Railroad is born.

In the first half of the 19th Century, North Carolina was painfully aware of its reputation as an economic backwater. It was referred to widely and derisively as “The Rip Van Winkle State.”

The Carolina Watchman in Salisbury noted that in 1848 the U.S. exported 120 million bushels of grain, but that not one of those bushels came from central or western North Carolina. There was simply no way for farmers in that region to transport their products to the coast for export. The newspaper calculated that the lack of transportation to markets cost North Carolina $400,000 a year.

When a plan was floated to construct a railroad across the state, linking Piedmont farmers with ports at Wilmington and Norfolk, there was general enthusiasm for the concept. But as always, the devil was in the details. It took significant horse trading among various interests to finalize a proposal. And given that the legislation called for state tax revenues to provide two thirds of the funding, there was still strident opposition from those who believed there was no role for government funds in internal improvements.

In the end, passage of enabling legislation was a near thing, but when Senator Calvin Graves cast a heroic tie-breaking vote to push the bill across the finish line, The Raleigh Register editorialized:

If this beneficent measure had been defeated, North Carolina would have lost almost every claim to the respect of enlightened communities and enterprising citizens would have abandoned her in a body.

So as of January, 1849, the North Carolina Railroad existed on paper. There was still the hurdle of raising one million dollars in private stock subscriptions, and potential investors would want to know exactly where the railroad would run. The charter of the North Carolina Railroad specified only that the railroad connect Goldsboro, Raleigh, Salisbury, and Charlotte. The all-important lines connecting those dots were to be decided.

The Chief Engineer gets to decide. Sometimes.

The North Carolina Railroad took immediate steps to launch the process of planning the route, announcing:

The Board of Directors proceeded forthwith to appoint Walter Gwynn Chief Engineer, with instructions to organize several corps of Engineers, and cause the route of the Road to be surveyed with dispatch.

Walter Gwynn was a distinguished graduate of the United States Military Academy, where he had studied engineering under a professor who had served under Napoleon. After a brief military career, Gwynn resigned his commission and turned to civil engineering, where he became internationally known for his work on canals and railroads. The Wilmington & Weldon Railroad engaged him as its chief engineer. (Years later, when civil war erupted, Gwynn would serve as a Major General in the southern cause. The coastal artillery positions he designed at Charleston were the ones that bombarded Fort Sumter.)

NCRR Chief Engineer Walter Gwynn
NCRR Chief Engineer Walter Gwynn

Given the scant guidance found in the railroad’s charter, Gwynn had considerable leeway in deciding how to link the four specified cities. The relatively short connections between Charlotte and Salisbury, and between Goldsboro and Raleigh, were pretty straightforward. But with regard to the connection between Raleigh and Salisbury, a distance of just over 100 miles, there were more options.

A direct line connecting Raleigh and Salisbury runs through Pittsboro, Siler City and Asheboro (essentially the line of today’s Highway 64), so a calculation based on average per-mile costs suggested the straight line route would be the least expensive option. An additional benefit to that route was that it would place the line close to the active coal fields of Chatham County.

Map of the most direct connection between Goldsboro, Raleigh, Salisbury, and Charlotte
The most direct connection for the NCRR

But Gwynn’s engineering survey showed that the Uwaharrie and Caraway Mountains near Asheboro would present a technical challenge expensive to overcome. These remnants of ancient coastal mountains reached a not-insubstantial elevation of 1,800 feet above sea level (compared to 315 feet at Raleigh), and the topography around them undulated dramatically. It was difficult terrain for railroad tracks.

From an engineering standpoint, a longer route farther north was a better choice. In general, the northern route presented less undulation in the terrain, and the river valleys there, closer to their headwaters, tended to be narrower and shallower.

Map of the final route of the NCRR
The final route of the NCRR

The northern route also had a significant non-engineering benefit. By following a crescent path from Raleigh to Salisbury instead of a straight line, the railroad would serve existing population centers at Hillsborough and Greensboro. The Board of Governors for the railroad were certainly aware that one of the limitations on the earlier Raleigh & Gaston Railroad was that it did not serve a string of population centers and thus did not generate significant local traffic. The resulting lack of ticket revenue contributed to its perpetually sketchy fiscal situation.

So it was evident early on that the North Carolina Railroad between Raleigh and Salisbury would bulge north in a crescent.

When it came to actual acquisition of land for the track right-of-way, The North Carolina Railroad was in a position that seems almost surreal when compared to land acquisition for infrastructure today. Most landowners were eager for the railroad to come to their property, and they willingly donated the specified 200-foot-wide strip of land. In Orange County, only 4 or 5 owners declined to donate property. And when they did, their demands were reasonable.

If a landowner declined to sell, the railroad company had a legal right to seize the land required for right-of-way and pay the owner a fee determined by a court-appointed panel. In 1852, one Barnabas Johnson of Wake County was a holdout. A panel determined that with the coming of the railroad to his farm, he would gain no advantage, but he would suffer damages of $95.00. He was paid that fee, and the railroad crossed his property.

Even with a grand strategy in place, there were many local battles to be fought.

With the northern crescent route set and land acquisition relatively easy, there was still much to be decided with regard to laying track and building stations. A look at a handful of local cases gives an idea of the various types of considerations in planning the route.

In Johnson County, a great plan on paper

One of the biggest decision to be made was in Johnston County, where the railroad’s charter specified that it terminate in Goldsboro and connect with the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad where that railroad crossed the Neuse River. That plan would hit the trifecta of connecting east/west traffic on the North Carolina Railroad, north/south traffic on the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, and river traffic down the Neuse to the port at New Bern. It looked great on paper in a charter, but the reality was that where the Wilmington & Weldon crossed the Neuse, the ground was so swampy that the tracks had been elevated on a long trestle as they approached the bridge. To Chief Engineer Walter Gwynn, that was an unnecessary expense.

Gwynn proposed that the North Carolina Railroad tracks join those of the Wilmington & Weldon on higher ground a mile south of Goldsboro. The town did not like that plan. Goldsboro knew the value of being on the rail line; the town itself had been created when the Wilmington & Weldon elected to avoid the low, frequently flooded land near the county seat of Waynesborough. Several miles from town, the railroad built a depot, and the new town of Goldsboro sprang to life around it. As the years passed, Waynesborough declined while Goldsboro thrived, eventually becoming the county seat. So when the North Carolina Railroad came along, Goldsboro did not like the idea of the connection and its depot being a mile outside town.

Gwynn agreed to move the depot to Goldsboro. But when he did, New Bern objected that there would be no river connection to benefit them. NCRR shareholders in New Bern sought legal counsel, hired their own engineer consultant, and refused to pay their stock installments. The resulting legal wrangling only ended several years later when a rail spur was run down to the banks of the Neuse.

Some in Raleigh wanted a difficult connection

In Raleigh, it was only natural for the North Carolina Railroad to connect with the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad. Friends of the Wilmington & Weldon lobbied against such a connection on the grounds that it would simply be a way to divert North Carolina goods to Norfolk, Virginia – goods that should rightfully go North Carolina’s own port at Wilmington.

Others wanted to see the connection, but they didn’t want it to be too efficient. Hotel owners pushed for a passenger transfer that would require an overnight stay in Raleigh. And teamsters wanted separate depots that would require cargo to be hauled between them by wagon. These interests eventually lost the battle, but their legal efforts delayed a shared terminal by two years.

Chapel Hill saw itself as a place of higher education. Walter Gwynn saw it as a hill.

David Lowry Swain, President of the University of North Carolina, wanted the railroad to come through Chapel Hill. But Chief Engineer Walter Gwynn found the topography too hilly. In the end, the North Carolina Railroad passed nine miles outside town at a location called Strayhorn’s Turnout. When a depot was built there, it was called University Station. It was a likely place for a town to grow, and real estate lots were advertised, but no town materialized. Students arriving at the depot would make their way to the University by road.

Had the line gone close to Chapel Hill, it would likely have passed some miles south of Hillsborough, and that town might not have gotten a depot. The station they did get was just across the Eno River from the town, which they found disappointing. Former Governor David Swain commented ruefully that no one from Hillsborough had ever gone over to that side of the river except to be hanged.

Durham was supposed to be Prattsburg

The railroad was originally mapped to pass through the hamlet of Prattsburg just southeast of Hillsborough. Landowner William Pratt offered to sell the necessary right-of-way, but he demanded a steep price. Rather than pay for the property or seize it through eminent domain, Walter Gwynn relocated the tracks two miles west where a property owner named Dr. Bartlett Leonidas Durham offered to donate the necessary land.

Dr. Bartlett L. Durham
Dr. Bartlett L. Durham

 Dr. Durham provided 4 acres of the 100 acres he owned, and in gratitude, the railroad named the new depot Durham’s Station. The town that grew there became Durhamville.

A powerful businessman trumps a chief engineer.

In Alamance County, the railroad had to cross the Haw River. The principle east/west stage coach road – connecting Hillsborough And Greensboro – made the crossing at the town of Haw River. But Gwynn planned his crossing farther north. His preferred route was shorter and would save the railroad $5,000. General Benjamin Trollinger, who had built a cotton mill at Haw River in 1844, had a different idea. He thought the railroad should come to Haw River and his mill. It was a reasonable argument that may or may not have stood on its own merits. Likely more important was the fact that the general was a member of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Railroad, and he was a major construction contractor in the area. Gwynn was just a chief engineer. The railroad went to Haw River.

Just because the railroad bypasses you doesn't mean you can't be on the railroad.

State Senator John W. Thomas took a different approach when the railroad missed his property. In the legislature, he was a strong supporter of the railroad, and he wanted it to come to his Fair Grove Plantation in Davidson County. To that end, he accompanied the surveying crew as they searched for the best route, even wining and dining the crew at his plantation house. In the end, the rail line was drawn to pass several miles north of Fair Grove in order to connect with the county seat of Lexington. Senator Thomas accepted the decision. Then he purchased large tracts of land on each side of the proposed route and started the village of Thomasville.

A very modern railroad on a very ancient path

From Goldsboro to Charlotte, the North Carolina Railroad laid 223 miles of single track at a gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. Remarkably, when all was said and done, the company listed only $20,000 for expenditures toward purchase of right-of-way, the remaining land having been donated by landowners eager to have the rail line near them.

The line crossed three rivers, the Neuse, Haw, and Yadkin. Elevation along the line ranged from a low of 104 feet above sea level at Goldsboro to 743 feet at Charlotte. About midway between the two, it reached a peak of 943 feet, a place that would become the town of High Point.

Staking out the highest point on the North Carolina Railroad
The point of highest elevation would become High Point.

Today, the northern crescent route chosen by the North Carolina Railroad is the demographic and economic backbone of the state. The railroad played a major role in establishing it as such, and the railroad remains a vital part of that backbone with freight and passenger trains still operating on the original right-of-way.

But it is important to remember that the railroad, in choosing to serve the population centers of its era, was simply overlaying itself on earlier routes of travel. Those population centers – especially Hillsborough, Salisbury and Charlotte – were there in the first place because of earlier wagon roads such as The Great Wagon Road. And those roads were there because of even earlier footpaths – such as the Great Trading Path – that had been active as corridors of trade, social interaction and warfare for millennia. The North Carolina Railroad, for all its modernity in 1850, was simply one more modern overlay on a very old map.

The featured illustration of a steam locomotive is a detail taken from the document “Map of Orange County NC,” courtesy of North Carolina Maps.

The picture of Dr. Bartlett Leonidas Durham is courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library.

For anything having to do with the early days of the NCRR, see Allen W. Trelease’s book, The North Carolina Railroad, 1849 – 1871, and the Modernization of North Carolina. The book is published by UNC Press.

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