160 Years Ago: The Railroad Comes to the Piedmont

9 Jan 2015

Image courtesy NCRC.

During the winter of 1854/1855, railroad tracks were being put down in order to connect a line from Charlotte to Salisbury. A shortage of iron caused a delay in the completion of the track and by late November of 1854 it was reported that less than 4 miles of track were left to be laid. On December 21, an invitation/advertisement appeared in the Carolina Watchman announcing  “A Rail-Road Barbecue,” to be given by the citizens of Rowan County on January 4 in honor of the completion of the railroad.

More than just an excuse to eat, barbecue played an important role in the building of railroads. Railroad promoters used barbecues to attract citizens to rally support for the building of railroads and, more important, to encourage them to buy “subscriptions,” or shares, in railroad companies. Towns held barbecues to celebrate the completion of railroad lines to their communities, which could be pivotal events that would make or break the town’s fortunes.1

Carolina Watchman, December 21, 1854. 

At the Salisbury barbecue there were distinguished speakers such as judges and the former governor of North Carolina, John Motley Morehead. Concord native, Rufus Barringer, led a procession from the courthouse to the depot, which was still unfinished. A gentleman named Professor Elliot launched his hot air balloon, called the “Isabella.” Professor Elliott, who was said to be an expert at estimating crowds from his balloon, ventured to guess of 15,000 people present at the celebration. Between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., trains arrived in Salisbury laden with passengers who were greeted by tremendous cheering from residents lining the rails, the firing of cannons and the musical entertainment of the brass bands of Concord and Salisbury. All in all, 24 hogs, 16 sheep, and assorted other animals were served with 1400 pounds of bread and a ball was held at Murphy’s Hall.

Rufus Barringer (cropped).jpg
Concord native Rufus Barringer was a key figure in the promotion and expansion of the NC rail system. Photo: Wikipedia.com

The importance of what the railroad meant to the citizens was greatly understood. The editor of the Watchman stated,

“the train – the Iron Horse – whose thundering tread annihilates distance and almost condenses weeks into as many hours has become an indispensable agent of commerce and travel all over our country; and that State which neglects to provide them, may be written down as obsolete and feeble. Until now, this part of NC has not enjoyed the benefits of this great revolutionary. We are in the transition to a new and better state, the age of iron and steam and the triumph of intellect and ingenuity over physical strength, a glorious triumph and worthy of man.”

The reporters for the Carolina Watchman spent the day of January 4, 1855 questioning the citizens on their feelings about the new railroad. The following is an excerpt fron the article that appeared in the January 11, 1855 edition:

An old gentleman from one of the Western counties came up, after having walked up and down the track for a considerable distance, and standing near the engine, with his eyes running up and down the train and now and then resting upon the iron steed which drew it in, observed, “Well I thought I knew something about railroads before, though I never saw one; but I find out now that I know nothing about them. Why just look at that platform” pointing to an open car, “they can pile as much on that thing as I could haul at 10 or 15 loads with my wagon and four horses; and they tell me that one of these engines can pull as many as 30, all loaded; and then they travel as far in an hour as I could in a whole day.”

As the day wore on, citizens enjoyed the barbecue, watched Professor Elliott take his balloon into the clouds and either took the train back home or found lodging in Salisbury. From the reports, by late evening, every house in Salisbury was filled with visitors staying the night. The closing statement of the article in the Watchman declared, “And so passed away the fourth of January, 1855, in Salisbury. May all live long to remember it, and to enjoy the benefits of the work then celebrated.”

Courtesy of the Cabarrus County Public Library Lore Local History Room and the Rowan County Public Library