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Groundbreaking Transportation: 165 Years After the North Carolina Railroad Company’s Beginnings

On July 11, 1851, the North Carolina Railroad Company held its ground-breaking ceremony in Greensboro. The North Carolina Railroad Company was not the state's first railroad line, but its creation marked the culmination of two decades of both lawmakers' efforts and private development across North Carolina. It was the first rail line founded by the state and owned predominantly by it, and the company—together with its predecessors— would play a pivotal role in North Carolina’s economic development.

The North Carolina Railroad Company was created by the General Assembly in 1848, although efforts had begun as early as 1833 to pass legislation to sponsor a railroad. The 1848 plan stated that the state would purchase $2 million in company shares while another $1 million would be sold to the public. The first train traveled the completed line—from Charlotte to Goldsboro—in January 1856.

The day before the ground-breaking ceremony, the North Carolina Railroad Company's shareholders met in Greensboro to discuss the line and the proceedings were later printed. In this publication, company president John M. Morehead, gives a brief summary of the outlook for the railroad, including the line's location and cost: "Upon a thorough examination, it was ascertained that the most practicable route for the Road passed from the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad by Waynesborough [sic], some four miles north of Smithfield, by Raleigh, Hillsborough, Graham, Greensborough, Lexington, Salisbury, Concord, to Charlotte, 223 miles in length; and the estimated cost thereof was $3,165,333, to which add $100,000 for work shops and $139,800 for equipment, locomotives, &c., and the whole amounts to $3,405,133" (p. 4-5). And though Morehead writes that more land might be necessary for the project's completion, he did not anticipate trouble securing this land, since many landowners had been donating their land to the cause.

In 1868, the North Carolina Railroad Company signed a contract that allowed it to ship freight along the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad line. The Raleigh and Gaston Railroad operated as a private company from its charter in 1843 until its bankruptcy and foreclosure in 1845. It then became a state-run agency until the General Assembly reorganized it as a private firm in 1851 and 1852. Walter McKenzie Clark chronicles the life and times of the railroad in History of the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad Company, Including All the Acts of the General Assembly of North Carolina Relating Thereto (1877). This history includes descriptions of efforts to extend the lines and attempts to disrupt the line during the Civil War.

Both the North Carolina and Raleigh and Gaston Railroad Companies were predated by the Wilmington and Weldon line, which began in 1834. The line was completed in 1840 and proved particularly valuable because it allowed for the safe and speedy transport to and from what was North Carolina's most important port, Wilmington. Though much of the nearby Atlantic and North Carolina line had been taken by Federal troops early in the Civil War, the Wilmington and Weldon remained an important Confederate supply line between the army and the blockade runners.

These railroad-related documents and histories are part of DocSouth's "North Carolina Experience" collection, which collects books, letters, reports, posters, artifacts, songs, and oral histories about North Carolina, its people, and its history.

Jennifer L. Larson