The Night the Tracks Came Up (after two decades of fighting)

Wayne County railroad map, 1900
1900 map showing the Wilmington & Weldon (green), NC Railroad (red), and Atlantic & NC (yellow).      Library of Congress

City of Goldsboro to Railroads: “Drop Dead!”

The “night the tracks came up” is a great local legend, and for the most part true, but it is only a fraction of the whole story

Goldsboro owes its very existence to the railroad but by the beginning of the twentieth century, the relationship became frayed as citizens protested the noise, smell, and traffic of train cars running up and down Center Street. By 1926 the situation had deteriorated to the point that the city alderman secretly instructed the removal of the tracks on the night of April 2.

1885 Goldsboro Sanborn map
Section of the 1885 Goldsboro Sanborn map. Note the four tracks running down Center Street. One of the lines dead-ends at Walnut.  Click to enlarge.

By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Goldsboro had been in existence for just over two decades yet there were already three railroad lines running both east & west and north & south. The first was the Wilmington & Weldon, completed in 1840 running from Wilmington to the Virginia border at Weldon. Just a few years later came the North Carolina Railroad, which ran from Goldsboro to Charlotte. Finally, in 1858, came the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad, linking Goldsboro to the port at Morehead City.

Railroad cars on Center Street, Goldsboro, 1870's
1870s Center Street, taken at the Walnut Street intersection looking towards the southwest. Railroad traffic was a constant hazard for citizens along Center Street.

A RR depot for all your problems

Telegram, NC RR Commission to Isaac Dortch
Telegram sent May 8, 1906 from the NC Railroad Commission in Raleigh to local lawyer Isaac Dortch.     NC Archives

The emergence of the railroad is one of the most important events in both US and North Carolina history but this development did not come without a price. Injuries and deaths were common and the numbers are staggering. In just two years, 1919-1920, nearly 13,000 people died as a result of railroad accidents in the United States, with tens of thousands more injured.

Goldsboro wanted a solution to the problem and as early as 1905 petitioned the North Carolina Railroad Commission for approval of a rail station, the prime location being the west end of Walnut Street. In a 1905 letter to the commission, signed by several dozen residents, they stated:

We feel the necessity for a Union Passenger Station so strongly, and likewise feel so certain of your desire to do whatever is best for the city, that we are willing to leave the selection of the site to you; PROVIDED THAT THE TRACKS ON CENTRE ST. BE REMOVED. By the constant moving of trains, business on this street is greatly retarded and the RISK TO LIFE IS APPALLING.      (emphasis original)

Goldsboro Union Station, ca 1920
Goldsboro Union Station, circa 1920. The passenger cars belong to the Norfolk & Southern RR (the successor to the Atlantic & NC RR).

The commission approved the station in May of 1906 but the building would not open until 1909. In November 1909, with the depot up and running, there had been no movement from the railroads to remove the tracks on Center Street. There is also no evidence that the railroad commission expressly ordered the rail companies to raze the tracks. The city alderman therefore implemented several new ordinances to limit and control the movement of trains downtown.

  • No passenger or freight train may exceed four miles hour along Center and a flagman must proceed fifty feet ahead of each train to warn persons of its approach.
  • No railroad will be allowed to switch or shift cars on Center Street between Ash and Spruce except between 6:30 to 8:30 am and 4:30 to 6:30 pm.
  • No cars can sit for more than five minutes on Center between Ash and Spruce.

Take it up with the Supreme Court

Associate Justice Mahlon Pitney
Justice Mahlon Pitney delivered the opinion of the court.

The railroad companies, supremely frustrated by the efforts of the city to control their day-to-day business, reached their breaking point and in 1912 the Atlantic Coast Line (the old Wilmington & Weldon RR) sued the city. In Wayne County Superior Court, the railroad lost its case. It was decided that the city could limit railroad operations for the safety of local residents. The ACL kept up the fight but the NC Supreme Court concurred with the superior court.

Undaunted, the Atlantic Coast Line appealed to the United States Supreme Court, who accepted the case and heard arguments from the city and railroad in December 1913. In the case of Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company v. City of Goldsboro, North Carolina (232 U.S. 548) the court upheld the rulings of the lower courts in favor of the city.

The justices agreed with the lower court rulings that the ACL’s due process rights (5th & 14th Amendments) had not been violated. By restricting railroad operations through legislative, rather than judicial, means, the city aldermen were within their rights as the duly elected representatives of citizens to ensure the safety of the local population.

From the court’s ruling:

The ordinances now in question must be considered in view not only of the charter and property rights of plaintiff in error, but of the actual situation that has developed and now exists in Goldsboro, with the consent and long acquiescence of plaintiff in error and its predecessors in interest. A town of considerable size and importance has grown up along the line of the railroad. The strip of land 130 feet in width, so far as it is not occupied by the railroad tracks, for many years has been and still is used for the ordinary purposes of a street. The Supreme Court of North Carolina found, upon adequate evidence, that it is the main business street of the town, frequently crowded with pedestrians and vehicles, and that the operation of trains along it, notwithstanding the utmost care of the railroad company, tends to obstruct the crossings and is fraught with danger to life and property. There are, within the blocks covered by the ordinances, two main lines of railway besides that of plaintiff in error. These, of course, complicate the situation by narrowing the spaces available for ordinary travel north and south on East and West Center Streets, and must also enhance the dangers at the crossings.

The regulations in question are thus found to be fairly designed to promote the public health, safety, and welfare; the measures adopted appear to be reasonably suited to the purposes they are intended to accomplish, and we are unable to say that there is any unnecessary interference with the operations of the railroad, or with the property rights of plaintiff in error. Therefore, no violation of the “contract” or “due process” clauses is shown.

A local “Cold War”

Southern Railway steam engine on Center street, about 1900.
Southern Railway steam engine on Center street, about 1900.

While the ruling of the Supreme Court was an unquestionable victory for the city, it did not address the central problem of the removal of the tracks on Center Street. Goldsboro could regulate traffic but removing the property (the tracks) of a private corporation was well beyond the power of the aldermen. For over a decade there existed a sort of “Cold War” between the two sides where the status quo held firm- the city regulated the running of cars downtown while the railroads kept their tracks.

Local residents and the city continued to complain about  the noise, smell, and danger to pedestrians along Center Street. The record of city minutes for the 1910’s is littered with complaints about rail traffic:

  • October 4, 1915.  The city judges a rail bridge over Carolina Street unsafe to pedestrians and vehicles and orders it be replaced and paid for by Southern Railway.
  • October 2, 1916.  The board ordained that no trains could run across James St. between Vine & Holly or George St. between Vine & Holly at more than four miles per hour. Additionally a flagman must be present at both intersections for any train crossing. Any violations will result in a $50 fine for each offense.
  • November 5, 1917.  “Invariably the condition of the Railroad crossings are such as to endanger both pedestrian and vehicle traffic and to better this condition, the passing of an ordinance is recommended requiring the paving…all such crossings wherein two or more tracks are located…”
  • September 8, 1919.  Mayor Edgar Bain, in an address to the alderman stated: “The swithching yards of the Railroads are too small to accommodate the shifting and in order to carry on they have to violate the law by using Center Street. They should be made to enlarge their yard or move farther out.”
  • March 7, 1921.  Robert L. Thompson, a resident of Center Street, addressed the board to complain about the unloading of train cars at night in front of residences on Center. The board directed the city manager to enforce the ordinance prohibiting unloading on Center St. between Spruce and Oak.

The beginning of the end

On October 1, 1925 the city struck a deal with the Atlantic Coast Line to remove its track from Center Street. The agreement, entered into the minutes of the December 7, 1925 meeting of the city council, was mediated by the NC Railroad Commission and legally binding.

The Atlantic Coast Line agreed to:

  • Remove its track on Center Street from Ash to Spruce.
  • Transfer title to the property, 130 feet wide x 2115 feet long, to the city for $1.

The city agreed to:

  • Pay the ACL no more than $400 for the removal of its track.
  • Recognize the property rights, now and “at all times hereafter” of the ACL south of Spruce and north of Ash.
  • Dismiss all assessments current and future, to the ACL for the paving of Center Street. (The city often billed the railroad companies for improvements to city streets running with or over tracks.)

After two decades the city finally realized its goal. While not exactly the Louisiana Purchase, $401 (just over $5600 in 2018) was an incredible bargain. One huge problem remained- there was other track running down Center Street.

The war is won, the tracks come up

For at least 60 years, local legend has held that on the night of April 2, 1926, an army of one-hundred local men tore up the tracks on Center St. and by daybreak had piled tons of iron and wood on Center just north of Ash Street. In a piece  by Moses Rountree decades ago, he wrote that the city alderman, in secret, ordered city manager Claude Grantham to destroy the tracks.

Every hour during the night, according to [water superintendent M.C.] Epps, workers were fortified with helpings from corn liquor from a peck pail. A man with a dipper rationed the whiskey, while another stood by with a pail of water as a chaser…It was a scrupulously held secret. Nothing was said to the press. And the public was unaware of what happened until August 8, when a suit was filed against the city by Southern [Railway Company] and its lessor, North Carolina Railroad [Company].

So, the big question is: did it really happen? Yes, it certainly did, but it is not quite as sensational as local legend portrays it.

The North Carolina Railroad and Southern Railway took the city to court over the removal of their track (the Southern leased its track from the NC RR) in 1928. The two companies alleged that the removal of the track was illegal and violated their due process rights. There was one problem with this claim- neither the Southern or NC RR had any claim to either the title or easement to the track.

The Atlantic Coast Line (originally the Wilmington & Weldon) was the first railroad line in Wayne County, predating the establishment of Goldsboro, and in fact the very reason for the establishment of the town in 1847. Their property ran down Center Street stretching 130 feet wide (roughly the width of the street today).

Goldsboro Daily Argus, April 16, 1926 headline
Headline from the April 16, 1926 Goldsboro Daily Argus. A heavily attended public meeting called for four rows of parking and a divider splitting the street with a paved walkway.

Within the next fifteen years, the NC Railroad and the Atlantic & NC Railroad, both running east to west, were completed. Both companies built track running north and south down Center, parallel to the Atlantic Coast Line. However, neither company had any legal agreement with the ACL over the use of their property for tracks.

When the ACL sold its title to the city in October 1925, the NC RR and Southern lost any and all claims to their track, as they never owned the property in the first place. The court ruled that the city had not violated the due process rights of the NC RR & Southern but Judge R.A. Nunn did order the city to pay $3500 ($51,000 in 2018) in damages, plus lawyer fees, to the two companies.

The derailing by the city happened while the ACL was in the middle or removing their track. The city wagered, correctly, that pulling up the other track without prior notice would come with only minor consequences. Was it illegal? No, but it was certainly underhanded.

With the tracks finally gone the city moved forward with its long-held goal of paving Center Street, with ample parking for the “killer of railroads”, the automobile.

Paving Center Street, 1928
Paving Center Street, 1928. The man standing second from left is Zeno Hollowell, city manager and former mayor when the tracks were removed in 1926.

The end of an era

The railroad ended river transport, and by extension the town of Waynesborough. The automobile then supplanted the railroad as king. In the near future some new technology will replaced the car, and so on and so on. Unlike the Neuse though, where the only traffic to speak of today are kayaks and bass boats, the railroad still figures prominently today in Goldsboro and Wayne County.

The three original tracks, the Wilmington & Weldon, NC RR, and Atlantic & NC, are still in existence today, though they have changed owners several times. Two of the largest rail freight haulers in the nation, CSX and Norfolk Southern, run trains through town and will continue to for many decades to come.

The “night the tracks came up” is a great story and is mostly true, but it did not happen in a vacuum. It was the final battle in a fight that stretched over two decades between local government and private industry. In the end, Goldsboro proved its unshakable commitment to removing the tracks surpassed that of the once all-powerful railroads.

current NC Railroad corridor map
Current North Carolina railroad corridor map. Click to enlarge.                NC Railroad Company


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