The Tree of Life: The development of the RR in NC

The establishment of railroad lines was the single most important event in North Carolina history

NC Railroad Company loBefore 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

Wilmington & Weldon schedule, 1859
Wilmington & Weldon northbound time table, adopted October 1859. UNC-CH archives

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.


Pearce's new map of the state of North Carolina, 1870
“Pearce’s new map of the state of North Carolina”, 1870. Library of Congress

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

Train on Neuse River bridge, ca1865
“Neuse River Bridge” near Goldsboro taken by J.D. Heywood’s Photography Room of New Bern, NC. The date is likely between 1865 and 1870. The caption reads “Wilmington & Goldsboro R.R.”, certainly meaning the Wilmington & Weldon. However, if you zoom in on the end car it reads “A&NC RR”. The Atlantic & NC Railroad, completed in 1858, began in Goldsboro at the terminus of the NCRR and ran east to the port of Morehead City, NC. It is likely that this this train was on the W&W bridge just South of Goldsboro, as the A&NC did not cross the river in Wayne County, probably through a lease agreement with the Wilmington & Weldon RR. Library of Congress


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.

Goldsboro train downtown, 1873
Two trains on Center St. in downtown Goldsboro, 1873.


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.

Southern Railway engine, downtown Goldsboro
Southern Railway Company engine on Center Street in downtown Goldsboro, circa 1900.


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.

Civil War railroad lines map


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.



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