The concept of a "rail road" began in England in the 1750s, and the Middleton Railway claims to be the first in the world - operational in 1758. Over the next fifty years, steam-driven locomotives were improved and rail lines became somewhat useful, albeit that they continued to be rather crude and unreliable.
In 1826, the first line of rails in the United States is said to have been laid down at Quincy, Massachusetts, three miles in length and pulled by horses. In 1829, the first steam locomotive used in America, the English-built Stourbridge Lion, was put to work on the Delaware & Hudson. It was too heavy for the track (twice as heavy as had been promised by the builders), and was laid up next to the tracks as a stationary boiler. In 1829, Peter Cooper of New York built the Tom Thumb in a mere six weeks, a vertical boiler 1.4 hp locomotive, for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. It hauled thirty-six passengers at eighteen mph in August 1830. It had a revolving fan for draught, used gun barrels for boiler tubes, and weighed less than one ton.
In 1830, the Best Friend was built at the West Point Foundery at New York for the Charlston & Hamburgh Railroad. It was the first completely American-built steam engine to go into scheduled passenger service. It did excellent work until 1831 when the boiler exploded due to a reckless fireman, unexpectedly ending its, and his career.The first railroad in North Carolina was brought into the state from Petersburg, Virginia to Blakely Depot in Northampton County in 1833 - with about nine (9) miles of new track laid within the state of North Carolina. That same year, an experimental railroad was constructed in Raleigh to help in the construction of the new State Capitol Building - a track of 1-1/2 miles was laid to bring stone from the quarry to the site. The Halifax & Weldon Railroad was constructed from 1833 to 1836 - a distance of eight (8) miles.
In March of 1833, the commissioners of the city of Fayetteville negotiated a loan of $200,000 to be invested in the Cape Fear & Yadkin Valley Railroad, which, with individual subscriptions, would be more than enough for the organization of the company - and, work could begin in early 1834. However, the project was abandoned because of lack of support by the inhabitants of the proposed western section of the state.
On July 4, 1833, the Internal Improvement Convention assembled in Raleigh with one hudred and twenty (120) delegates, representing twenty-one (21) counties in the eastern and northern sections of the state. This seems to have been the first concerted effort towards organized action for the establishment of a railroad within North Carolina. During this convention, plans were offered mostly for north-south railroads to take goods out of the state to both South Carolina and Virginia. Joseph Alston Hill of Wilmington argued strongly against these ideas and offered that it made much more sense for east-west railroads to bring North Carolina goods to existing seaports such as Wilmington and New Bern.
In January of 1834, a bill to incorporate the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad was made law, but the terms of the charter were so restricted that an amended charter was obtained in December of 1835, conferring more priveleges and changing the course of the proposed line. In 1834, it was planned for the new railroad to connect Wilmington with Raleigh, but as the project was more thoroughly considered and planned, the advantages of building to some point on the Roanoke River to connect with Virginia railroads was more palatable - especially since the people in and around Raleigh seemed to be losing interest in teaming with their brethren in Wilmington.
The construction of the Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad commenced in October of 1836 and on March 7, 1840 the last spike was driven. When completed, it was then the longest railroad in the world, at 161-1/2 miles long. It owned twelve (12) locomotives, eight (8) 8-wheeled passenger coaches, four (4) post-office cars, and fifty (50) freight cars. In 1854, the line (and company) was officially renamed to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, since Raleigh was not even remotely involved since the first year.
As the governmental seat, the city of Raleigh had not abandoned the Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad for no apparent reason. In 1835, the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad was chartered and the line was opened within a month after the Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad - in April of 1840. At eighty-six (86) miles, this new line connected Raleigh with the Greensville & Roanoke Railroad (of Virginia & NC) at Gaston, North Carolina in Halifax County - less than ten (10) miles from Weldon (a ten miles that was not connected until the 1850s).
Although the 1833 Convention seemed to embrace east-west railroads in favor of north-south railroads, it was soon apparent that this is not what immediately transpired within North Carolina. The 1840s and early 1850s soon rectified this situation with the commencement of nothing but east-west railroad lines.
Early railroads were problematic, to say the least. Tracks were made of wood with a strip of iron/steel secured on top. Ties were not always evenly spaced, and the roadbed was seldom improved much beyond the natural ground along the path. Locomotives and cars were still in their infancy, and many lasted for less than a year before they had to be replaced or significantly upgraded. The flanged "T-rail" was invented in 1831 by American Robert L. Stevens, but it could only be produced by steelmakers in England for quite a few years. It was not adopted by most U.S. railroads until the 1840s and by some until the 1850s.
In 1839, a French observer noted that "Americans exhibit a perfect mania... on the subject of railroads." This was also true of North Carolinians. By 1850, ten more lines were under construction with five more on the drawing boards.
At the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, North Carolina had fourteen (14) railroads with over seven hundred and fifty (750) miles of railroad track in operation, stretching as far west as Morganton in Burke County and Lincolnton in Lincoln County, and as far east as Morehead City in Carteret County - connecting the Piedmont with three significant port cities: Beaufort, New Bern, and Wilmington. Two railroads connected the state with Virginia, and two railroads connected the state with South Carolina.
Railroads played a significant role during the Civil War with troop movement, but their greatest use was for transporting goods and material to aid in the war effort. Although not hit as hard as South Carolina, many miles of track were destroyed by General Sherman on his march through the state, but many miles were also torn up by locals to be used on more important lines across the state and the Confederacy.
After the war, North Carolinians made quick repairs and by 1870 had added another hundred and fifty (150) miles of new track. By the end of the century, North Carolina was proud to have over thirty-eight hundred (3,800) miles of railroads, criss-crossing almost every county within the state. The end of the century also brought the many railroad mergers and the "conglomerates" that continued to dominate the twentieth century.
It is rather an understatement to say that the railroad transformed the state of North Carolina like nothing had before - or perhaps, will again. The U.S. Highways and Interstates of the twentieth century come very close, but even these are directly linked to the railroads of the nineteenth century. In the 1840s, the first "railroad towns" began to emerge along the snaking steel rails where farmland once held firm. Thousands of little depots, hamlets, and thriving cities began to evolve along the railroad well into the early twentieth century. Many have since faded away into oblivion.
Interestingly, many existing towns did not want the railroad to even come near them. Few of these visionless towns continue to this day, although some do thanks to other valuable assets.
Click Here to view / download an 1883 map of the railroads in North Carolina (and South Carolina).
In the late 1880s and early 1890s, sixteen (16) cities and towns began construction of horse-drawn "Street Railways" that quickly evolved into electric systems. These progressive towns and cities grew their systems until the automobile and bus companies proved to be cheaper alternatives in the 1930s.
Click Here to view / download a 1922 map of the railroads in North Carolina (and South Carolina).
Railroading peaked in North Carolina around 1930, with approximately forty-eight hundred (4,800) miles of track in operation. The coming of the automobile and the freight trucking lines, highways began to assume dominance over the railroads - and this fate was sealed when the U.S. Interstate Highways came along in the 1950s and 1960s. Many railroad lines began to be non-profitable, so these were soon abandoned. Many local communities and counties quickly realized that a good part of their "history" was evaporating, so many abandoned lines were re-acquired by local interests and made operational once again in the 1980s and 1990s.
Needless to say, with the many mergers of the early twentieth century and the consolidation of lines as well as the elimination of unprofitable lines by the bigger companies, many "railroad towns" began to fade away. They either found some other reason to exist or they too were abandoned. Quite a few did not survive to the twenty-first century.
Railroads not only transported goods and materials from one location to another, they brought new jobs and careers to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians across the decades. Many dreamed of being engineers or conductors. More realistically, most worked in the railroad offices - calculating freight bills, calculating routes, invoicing shippers, processing payments, and even making coffee for the boss. Many more maintained the tracks, the stations, and the equipment. As these were upgraded to better and better standards it took less people for the maintenance and operations efforts, but many continue to keep the railroads running to this day.