The railroad is the single most important development in the history of both Wayne County and North Carolina. With no natural deep ports and a string of barrier islands, our state was commonly regarded as a rural backwater for much of its early history.
The railroad created Goldsboro and Mt. Olive while bringing about the end of Waynesborough, the original county seat. As William Sherman made his way north from Georgia in late 1864, his main objective was Goldsboro and its intersection of major rail lines.
This is part 2 of a three part series. Click here for part 1.
With the defeat of the British and formation of the United States, the North Carolina General Assembly created Wayne County in 1787 from the former Dobbs County. With a new nation came new demand for surveys of everything from national borders all the way down to private property.
While surveyors combed the nation though, the first maps differed little from the maps of the Colonial Era.
Above:Map of North and South Carolina, by J. Denison, published in 1796.
This map does feature counties but does not show any boundary lines, owing to the fact that comprehensive surveys had not yet been completed across the state.
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.
By the beginning of the Civil War, the original county seat of Wayne had disappeared
In 1758 the General Assembly ordered the division of Johnston County and formation of a new county, Dobbs, named in honor of Arthur Dobbs, the royal governor. Almost three decades later Dobbs was broken up and a new county, Wayne, was created. The new county, named for famed Revolutionary War hero “Mad” Anthony Wayne, had a large problem- there were no towns and thus no place for a county seat.
Wayne County today is home to over 110,000 people but the late 1700’s was a very different affair, with only a few thousand residents. A prominent local landowner, Andrew Bass, offered a plot on the Neuse River as the site for a new town.
In December 1785 the North Carolina General Assembly authorized the establishment of Wayne’s Borough “on the lands of Andrew Bass, on the north side of the Neuse River, in Wayne County, where the Court house and other public buildings now stand…” The town trustees were William McKinny (actually spelled McKinne), William McKinny Jr, Burwell Moring, Matthew Turner, John Howell, William Fellow, Richard Bass, William Whitfield Jr, and David Cogdell.
The new town grew slowly but never had more than five hundred residents. The lifeblood of the town was the river. Warehouses along the banks were filled with a variety of goods and materials, primarily pine sap, a key ingredient in the manufacture of naval stores. Waynesborough also benefited from its location on the Neuse. Past the town headed west, only small boats could safely navigate the river year round making the town an important transportation hub for areas west of town. The town was also an important stop for stagecoaches running from Raleigh, New Bern, Wilmington, and Fayetteville.
Wayne County in 1833 (left) and the 1870s (right). By the 1870s, Waynesborough had disappeared from maps. Courtesy Library of Congress
As areas of the Deep South opened up in the early 1800’s some locals moved on in search of new and better opportunities. The ultimate downfall though, began with the construction of a railroad line. Completed in 1839, the Wilmington & Weldon was the longest stretch of track in the world, just over 161 miles.
The engineer in charge of its construction, Matthew T. Goldsborough, chose a halfway point just a mile north of Waynesborough for his headquarters. The line bypassed the town and residents almost immediately realized their town was lost. Townspeople began deconstructing their homes and rebuilt them around Goldsborough’s office a mile away, located today at the corner of Center and Walnut Streets where the Hotel Goldsboro now stands.
Over the next two decades, two more railroad lines, running from Charlotte to Morehead City, intersected the north-south Wilmington & Weldon in Goldsboro, signifying the end of Waynesborough. The end officially came in 1848 when the citizens of Wayne County voted to switch the county seat from Waynesborough to Goldsboro.
How big was Waynesborough?
Fortunately a plat map of the town survives today. Originally drawn in 1822 by Britton Hood, the first Wayne County surveyor, the surviving map is a copy made in 1875.
The land is divided into 100 lots, both residential and commercial, along with the courthouse and jail. There were six streets, Water, Middle, Main, and three unnamed.
The entire town measured 126 x 102 poles, an old measurement rarely used today. One pole equals 16.5 feet, meaning the town in 1822 measured just over 2,000 x 1,600 feet, equal to about 80 acres. If you overlayed this map on downtown Goldsboro it would cover an area bounded by George and William Streets and Oak almost to Chestnut.
1822 Waynesborough map overlayed on modern satellite images of Old Waynesborough Park (left) and downtown Goldsboro (right).
Near the end of the Civil War there were only three buildings left in the former town, warehouses by the river. A fire destroyed them just after the war. Local legend says that General Sherman ordered their destruction as his men approached Goldsboro in the spring of 1865. While a great story, it is not true. What started the fire is not known but there is no evidence that Sherman, or any other Union officer, ordered the fire.
For decades the land sat unused other than for farming. At one time a brick manufacturing plant operated on the premises and for a few decades Goldsboro used a portion of the property as a dump for white goods- appliances.
Today the land, over 150 acres, is Old Waynesborough Park, with several miles of walking trails, a visitors’ center, and a dozen old buildings brought from around the county.
The only remnants of the town are the Churchill-Cogdell cemetery and possibly a channel cut in the river that would have been used by ships to turn around to head back east towards Kinston and New Bern.
The establishment of railroad lines was the single most important event in North Carolina history
Before the middle of the 19th century, North Carolina had the dubious reputation as the most backwards of the states (and colonies). In a world driven by maritime transit, the Outer Banks proved to be a monumental barrier, not to mention the lack of any suitable, natural deep water ports.
The emergence of the railroad transformed the state, today home to over 10 million people, some of the fastest growing cities in the nation, and numerous world class universities.
Frederick Law Olmstead, famed landscape architect and designer of Central Park, traveled through the South and in 1856 published his findings and opinions in A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. Entering by carriage from Virginia, he wrote that the roads were,
as bad as anything, under the name of a road, can be conceived to be. Wherever the adjoining swamps, fallen trees, stumps, and plantation fences would admit of it, the coach was driven, with a great deal of dexterity, out of the road. When the wheels sunk in the mud, below the hubs, we were sometimes requested to get out and walk. An upset seemed every moment inevitable. p311
His remarks on the “character” of North Carolina were also less than kind.
North Carolina has a proverbial reputation for the ignorance and torpidity of her people; being, in this respect, at the head of the Slave States. I do not find the reason of this in any innate quality of the popular mind; but, rather, in the circumstances under which it finds its development. Owing to the general poverty of the soil in the Eastern part of the State, and to the almost exclusive employment of slave-labor on the soils productive of cotton; owing, also, to the difficulty and expense of reaching market with bulky produce from the interior and western districts, population and wealth is more divided than in the other Atlantic States; industry is almost entirely rural, and there is but little communication or concert of action among the small and scattered proprietors of capital. p366
It’s true that North Carolina suffered from a lack of easily navigable rivers and ports but as a North Carolinian, Mr. Olmstead can eat it. I also take exception to his assessment of the poor soil in the eastern portion of the state as NC is one of the highest producing agricultural areas in the nation. But I digress.
The longest railroad in the world
At just over 161 miles long, the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad was the longest line in the world upon its completion in 1840. Running from the port of Wilmington in the southeastern corner of the state up to the town of Weldon on the Virginia border, the W&W created the town of Goldsboro, which sprang up around the offices of the line’s engineer Matthew Goldsborough.
With access to the port at Wilmington and connection to both the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad (to Portsmouth, VA) and the Petersburg (VA) Railroad to the north, merchants and farmers had access to new markets across the East Coast and beyond.
The “Tree of Life”
The success of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad lit a fire under the political and business classes of the state. Led by former governor, John Motley Morehead, calls became louder for a state sponsored line running East and West to complement the North and South running Wilmington & Weldon.
In a speech to the General Assembly in 1854, Morehead proclaimed,
Let the North Carolina Railroad, like a huge tree, strike its roots deeply into the shore of the Atlantic, and be moistened by its waters, and at last stretch its noble trunk through the center of the state, and extend its overshadowand protecting branches through the valleys and along the mountain tops of the west, until it becomes, indeed, the Tree of Life to North Carolina.
Authorized in 1848 and completed in 1856, the North Carolina Railroad ran 223 miles from Charlotte to Goldsboro, where it met the Wilmington & Weldon line. The three largest cities in the state today, Charlotte (873,363), Greensboro (290,519), and the capital Raleigh (476,746) all owe much of their growth and development to the NCRR, not to mention countless other smaller towns along the line, including my hometown of Goldsboro.
Railroads drive development
Goldsboro, NC owes its existence solely to the railroad and profited doubly as the site of a major intersection of railroad lines running North-South and East-West. Just over 50 years after its creation, the town was one of the largest in the state and a major transportation hub.
Like so much of human history though, the town turned on its creator. By the 1920s, residents had come to resent the noise, smoke, and activity of trains running through the center of town at all hours.
The Southern Railway Company refused to relocate the track running down Center Street so in March of 1926 the town council secretly agreed to tear up the line. On the night of April 2, town manager Claude Grantham organized over 100 men downtown to do the work. None had been told beforehand what the job would be yet they managed to dismantle the track before dawn, going so far as to neatly stack the rails and wooden crossties in the Southern Railway yard north of Ash Street.
Southern sued City Manager Claude Grantham and all the alderman. Judge R.A. Nunn ruled that the City of Goldsboro would pay $3500 in damages plus Southern’s lawyer fees. However, because neither Southern or the NC RR had a title or easement for the track, Judge Nunn decreed that neither had claim to rebuild the track downtown.
The railroad connected North Carolina to the rest of the world and ushered in an era of growth that continues today. From 1854 to 1872 the freight receipts of just the North Carolina Railroad Company totaled nearly $8,000,000 which today would equal roughly $166,000,000.
The railroad created thousands of jobs, including John R. Coltrane, father of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. His 1958 song “Goldsboro Express” was inspired by his father’s work on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, the successor to the Wilmington & Weldon.