Thursday, July 18, 2024

The little-known tale of the N.C. Railroad Co.’s birth

By Mark Washburn

You’ve probably never heard of Calvin Graves, a Yanceyville attorney and farmer, but he was arguably the most influential figure in propelling North Carolina from the depths of destitution to a manufacturing powerhouse. We were languishing as “The Rip Van Winkle State” when Graves’ pivotal moment arrived in 1848. Impoverished by a lack of navigable waterways that fed the booming ports of Norfolk and Charleston, North Carolina’s transportation network was little more than rutted wagon roads serving backwoods villages beyond the coastal cities.

But a newfangled invention was taking root. It was the railroad, and wherever one went, prosperity — and commerce — followed.

Farmers along a rudimentary rail line from the Piedmont to Petersburg, Va., saw their shipping costs for a bushel of grain plunge from 45 cents to 15. Salt, cotton and other goods swiftly rode the rails at a fraction of the price of overland wagons.

In Raleigh, lawmakers considered competing plans for a $3 million, state-supported railway that would open the western frontier to easterly markets. It was a fierce battle between those who opposed the rail line and others. Fault lines split the east and west, Democrats and Whigs. In the N.C. Senate, it was a stalemate: 22 for, 22 against.

All eyes turned to Graves. As Senate president, he held the tie-breaking vote. As a Democrat, he was obliged to vote against the ambitious gamble. “Aye!” he declared, putting principle above party. In his mind, this railroad thing held revolutionary potential.

It went over budget and behind schedule, but when tracks opened between Goldsboro and Charlotte, North Carolina’s economy was instantly roused from its stupor. Crops rode east and machinery rode west.

Three other railroads soon had junctions in Charlotte. Competition among the rail lines meant cotton growers had some of the nation’s lowest shipping prices. Mills flourished, and Charlotte’s population doubled in a decade. The growth hasn’t stopped.

Other towns along the rails prospered. Durham and Burlington were founded because of the line. It became the artery that fed the ports at Morehead City and Wilmington. John Motley Morehead, the railroad’s first president, called it North Carolina’s “tree of life.”

Today, the North Carolina Railroad Co. operates a 317-mile ribbon of steel from Charlotte to Morehead City. It needs no subsidy from the state and pays property taxes by leasing its rails to shippers such as Norfolk Southern. About 60 freights and nearly a dozen passenger trains pass over daily.

The railroad is estimated to save North Carolina industries about $800 million annually in shipping costs and to have a direct impact on about 57,000 jobs. It has become an engine of growth beyond the imagination of the warring factions who held its fate in 1848.

It took a casualty though — the political career of Calvin Graves. Incensed by his vote and lack of support for another line that would have reached Yancey County, voters turned him out of office.

Today, his memory is carried only on his tombstone, a state highway marker in quiet Yanceyville and the distant rumble of bustling freight.

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