The Story of Charlotte, Part 4: Whistles to War

Charlotte’s fight for the railroad, and the bigger battles that follow


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kim rosen

Last year, Mecklenburg County celebrated its 250th anniversary. This year, Charlotte magazine is looking back at life in the region through the years. From Charlotte’s beginnings as a rural crossroads to its current status as a major U.S. city, this 12-part series will trace the city’s growth and highlight some of the turning points that made the city what it became. And it will do all that by simply telling stories about people who lived here—their lives, their dreams, their failures, their successes, and their piece of the great city we are now.

Around 1840—The gold miners still come, but there aren’t as many of them. And they don’t stay in Charlotte long. Farmers fill in the gold pits that once held such promise and get back to the business of planting. Vacant log farmhouses rot, and stone gristmills crumble in overgrown fields as people stream out of Mecklenburg County after the gold rush. More than 6,000 residents—about one-third of the county’s population—will leave between 1830 and 1850. They head for the cheap and fertile cotton fields of Alabama and Mississippi. The Panic of 1837 sends the country’s economy into a deep recession. Banks close, and credit runs dry. Doctors and shop owners take out ads in local papers hoping some of their customers will settle long-overdue tabs. Some lose patience—one headline reads simply, “Pay Up.”

In these times, petty politics are a welcome distraction. The two weekly papers in town, the Whig-run Charlotte Journal and the Democrat-run Mecklenburg Jeffersonian, trade jabs each week. In 1840, the Journal launches a crusade to oust the superintendent of the Charlotte Mint, Colonel John Hill Wheeler. Wheeler is a Democrat, one of former President Andrew Jackson’s last appointees. The Journal scrutinizes every purchase he makes. Whig Congressman Edward Stanly, in a speech before the House of Representatives, denounces Wheeler for “so much extravagance, if not wanton waste, in the management of public money.” Wheeler’s crime, according to the paper and the Whigs: buying trees and manure with federal funds to landscape the grounds of the U.S. Branch Mint on West Trade Street. Wheeler loses his job the next year when Whig William Henry Harrison gets elected president. But the partisan bickering doesn’t end there. 

In 1842, plans to build a monument to the Mecklenburg Declaration fall through. The Democrats want to list Ezekiel Polk as one of the people who signed the document in 1775, which is now a source of local pride. The Whigs object because they say Polk supported the British during the Revolution 62 years earlier. To include him will “dishonor all … connected with it.” Ezekiel Polk happens to be the grandfather of soon-to-be Democratic Presidential candidate James K. Polk.

The newspapers agree on one thing, though: Charlotte needs a railroad to survive. The cotton farmers here are tired of spending so much of their profits and time carting cotton to the ports in Charleston and Wilmington. They can take their goods to towns along rivers that lead to those ports—towns like Cheraw or Camden in South Carolina, or Fayetteville in North Carolina. But it takes six or more days just to get to those places, and then another few days for the river barge to take the goods to the ports. There’s one private railroad in the state—the Wilmington and Weldon—which started running in 1840 and cuts a slow and smoky course through the farmland between those two eastern cities. Politicians in Raleigh have been talking about building a mountains-to-sea railroad to connect western counties with the port at Wilmington for decades now. That bill is still stuck in the General Assembly—another victim of political fighting. But news from South Carolina in 1845 gives townspeople in Charlotte hope. The state railway there plans to build a new line from Charleston, with branches to Camden and Columbia. If Charlotte can connect to one of those, it won’t need North Carolina or its railroad. 

Three men spend the next few years making plans for the railroad—Charles Fox, a town doctor and devoted Democrat, and two lawyers, James Osborne and William Johnston, both committed Whigs. At barbecues in the small farming villages throughout the area, they preach the benefits of the railroad. In town, they talk of higher property values for lots near stations. In the country, they paint pictures of easy trips to Charleston markets. Above all, they talk of a booming economy for Charlotte and North Carolina. “[The railroad] is all that remains to retrieve [the state] from poverty and from ruin, to retain [the] population within her border,” one railroad promoter says in 1847. It works. At one barbecue in the Providence community—around Providence Presbyterian Church in southeastern Mecklenburg County—the promoters take home $14,000 in stock subscriptions. That’s almost five times the cost of a sizeable new home. 

Charlotte and surrounding counties raise more than $300,000 for the line, but their plans won’t work without outside assistance. They’ve asked for help from merchants in Charleston only to be greeted with “cold indifference.” The Charlotte railroad promoters come up with a plan involving the two branches. From the promoters’ perspective, it doesn’t matter which branch the line from Charlotte connects with—Camden is a bit closer, but Columbia will do—as long as it eventually reaches the ports in Charleston. So, why not propose two lines from Charlotte—one to Columbia and one to Camden—then build the one that raises the most money?

The promoters take their barbecue tour into South Carolina, making more promises of an economic boom. Now they appeal to the farmers’ competitive side, too. You’re not going to let Kershaw beat you, are you? the promoters ask Chester County farmers along the proposed Columbia line. Are you going to let Chester beat you? they ask in Kershaw County, where the Camden line would pass through.

In fall 1847, the Charlotte-to-Columbia line comes away the clear winner. Some of the towns along the line seem even more enthusiastic than Charlotte. Fairfield and Chester counties buy more than $200,000 in stock each. That’s more than Charlotte, where residents buy $100,000. The Charlotte town government chips in for $100,000 more. When the state of South Carolina floats the organizers a $272,000 loan, the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad is born.

***

The railroad excites Charlotte “almost to the point of intoxication,” as one newspaper reporter puts it. New businesses spring up in anticipation. A group of merchants replaces the worn wood structures on the southwest side of the square with a row of three-story brick buildings trimmed in granite. The hope is to lure tenants for the stores and markets, which would catch the eye of train travelers as they walk up East Trade Street from the station. Construction on the line begins in Columbia and makes its way north through the sandy valley of the Midlands. Sleepy villages grow and small towns spring up—Winnsboro, Blackstock, Rock Hill. In late summer 1852, a locomotive at the end of the line sounds its whistle at the completion of each workday, close enough for the people in Charlotte to hear it as a signal of daily progress. 

***

On September 29, the railroad organizers announce a celebration for the next month, inviting the “citizens of North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee and the ‘rest of mankind’ personally to appear in the town of Charlotte to partake of the largest barbecue that has been given since the flood.”

But an article on the same page makes it clear that the invitation really isn’t to “all mankind.” The article says that slave owners in Charlotte have called a different type of public meeting. The mood at this meeting is fear, not like the exuberance of the railroad meetings. Several Charlotte slaves have been caught attempting to leave town, hoping to escape to freedom in the Northern states. In preparation for the escape, the slaves have forged papers identifying them as free blacks. Slave owners suspect a conspiracy. The few dozen free blacks now living in Charlotte, most of whom are artisans and barbers, must have helped the slaves forge the documents. What else might they be planning? the frightened owners wonder. At the meeting, the owners decide all slaves involved in the escape attempt should be sold out of state and that city leaders should “use all legal means to remove said free negroes without the limits of the State.”

Of Charlotte’s 1,065 residents in 1850, 456 are slaves. Thousands more live on the plantations and small farms throughout the county. As the number of slaves has increased, so have the town ordinances restricting them. Slaves are not allowed on the streets after 9:30 p.m. without written permission from their masters. A town guard patrols the streets each night with authority to enter “all suspected Negro houses,” including the homes of supposedly free blacks. And although some owners like to think their slaves are “happy, contented and tolerable,” the escape attempt shows that’s not true, just as advertisements make the inhumanity of slavery clear. “Levy M. Rankin,” one 1853 ad reads, “Dealer of Fine Mules & Negroes.”  

***

On October 28, 1852, thousands of people line the railroad’s path, just a block and a half east of the Square. The first train from Chester, 15 cars long and full of people and freight, arrives at the new depot in the early morning. Then, around lunchtime, a second train from Winnsboro brings more. The passengers join the crowds celebrating in the streets. By the time the final train from Columbia arrives in the early afternoon, 20,000 people surround the new depot as a brass band plays. Local politicians give speeches and lead the crowds south from the new railroad depot to a huge barbecue on the grounds of the town’s girls school. Fireworks fill the sky as night closes in, and the “young gentlemen and ladies” of town head to a dance. It is, the newspapers say, “the most brilliant and glorious day that the history of Charlotte has furnished in seventy odd years.”

The train changes everything. What was a six-day trip to the South Carolina coast now takes a day. Writers marvel that they can eat breakfast in Charlotte one morning, dinner in Columbia, and the next morning’s breakfast in Charleston. Farmers from nearby counties stream into Charlotte. Here, they can sell their cotton and produce for better prices than in the smaller towns. Wholesalers and grocers, clothes shops and tailors spring up around the rail line to take in the new business. An iron works and a furniture factory bring industry to what has always been a rural place. “You would be surprised to see its change,” a farmer from Lincoln County writes about his trip to Charlotte in early 1853. “It has become the market for the whole country around.”

The connection to Charleston brings other rail lines to Charlotte. The North Carolina Railroad, arching from Goldsboro to Raleigh, then south to Charlotte, finally starts running in 1856. In 1861, other lines connect the city to Lincolnton and Statesville. A line from Wilmington reaches Rockingham, on its way to connecting with Charlotte in the coming years. Each new spoke brings more shops and taverns and different types of people. The town’s first Catholic Church, St. Peter’s, opens on the southern edge of town in 1851. A small Jewish congregation—including Levi Drucker and Jacob Rintels, who operate shops along the rail line—forms. The town’s population more than doubles from 1850 to 1860. Charlotte now has more than 2,000 residents. The county regains most of its losses from the recent decades. But Charlotte is still a small enough town that the local newspapers publish stories about the latest shipment of chewing tobacco available at Dr. Fox’s or the 73/4-pound beet grown in John Young’s garden.

It’s a small enough town that strangers don’t go unnoticed, either—especially strangers from the North. Tensions between North and South have been intensifying for decades and now threaten to become violent. A political battle over the potential expansion of slavery into the newly formed territories of Kansas and Nebraska divides the parties on regional lines. Southerners want slavery in the new territories; Northerners do not. “Radical” abolitionist voices from the North get stronger. Their books, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are banned in the South. So when map seller Seth Hale arrives in Charlotte in summer 1854 speaking with a New England accent, Charlotte residents watch him closely. And when they hear him “giving vent to his abolitionist sentiments,” a group of Charlotte men threaten to make “a bird of” him, or tar and feather him, unless he leaves in an hour. Hale takes the hint, and a Charlotte paper warns the region:

“We warn all Southern communities against this scoundrel, and hope he may be driven from every place he enters.”

“When will our people quit encouraging these Yankee adventurers?” asks the North Carolina Whig.

In 1859, when news reaches Charlotte that John Brown and a group of 20 armed men, including five blacks, have raided Harpers Ferry, in western Virginia, and killed one U.S. Marine, Charlotte prepares for war. New militia units form. The Mecklenburg Dragoons and the Charlotte Light Infantry ensure that “every suspicious person” is “closely watched.” For cadets at the newly formed North Carolina Military Institute on the outskirts of town off Morehead Street, weapons drills take on new urgency. In South Carolina, the calls for secession grow louder, especially after Abraham Lincoln wins the presidential election in fall 1860.

Lincoln’s name isn’t even on the ballot in the South. 

Many North Carolinians don’t want to secede. Some, especially in the western parts of the state where slavery is less common, are strongly pro-Union. Newspaper editors in Raleigh urge caution.

Not in Charlotte. 

A blue and white secession flag flies atop a Trade Street building in late November 1860, even before South Carolina becomes the first state to secede. More and more, The Charlotte Daily Bulletin screams, the people of Mecklenburg are “anxious to throw off the yoke put upon her sons by Yankee abolitionists.” In February 1861, North Carolina rejects a measure to hold a convention to ratify secession by 650 votes. That’s despite the vote in Charlotte, where the tally is in favor of the convention, 747-7.

On April 13, news from Charleston comes over the newly installed telegraph lines: Confederate troops have fired on Fort Sumter, forcing the Union forces stationed there to evacuate. In Charlotte, local politicians give speeches at the square and militia units fire salutes. Soon, above the stone barracks at the North Carolina Military Institute, a secession flag flies. As a morning train to Columbia passes by, cadets fire their cannons. The passengers cheer and wave their hats as the engineer lets “his whistle scream as it had never screamed before.” 

Chuck McShane is a writer in Davidson and frequent contributor to this magazine. Reach him at chuckmcshane@gmail.com. On Twitter: @chuckmcshane

Next month – Charlotte in the Civil War – on the Confederate homefront.   

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