By Maury York
A drawing of an early Raleigh and Gaston
Business leaders and legislators envisioned the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad, built between 1836 and 1840, as an important means of revitalizing North Carolina's moribund economy.
The state's failure to spend money on internal improvements during the early 19th century had stifled business development and hurt farmers who needed economical means of transporting their crops to market.
During this period, thousands of Tar Heels left North Carolina for brighter opportunities in the South and West.
A rail line connecting the state capital with additional tracks leading to Petersburg, Va. was seen as a boon to the farmers and merchants of the Roanoke, Tar, and Neuse river valleys.
Choosing the best route was a deliberate process. The board of directors considered three alternatives, one of which would have passed southeast of Warrenton and through or near Louisburg.
Although this and another route were somewhat shorter, the directors took the advice of the company's chief engineer, Charles F.M. Garnett, and located the tracks along a dividing ridge between the waters of the Roanoke and Tar Rivers. From there, the rails would traverse the upper part of Warren County and run along the dividing line between Franklin and Granville counties, finally reaching Raleigh after crossing the Neuse River.
This route had the advantage of necessitating less bridge construction - a costly expense.
Harper & Bros. map of North Carolina, 1843
Garnett utilized a considerable amount of slave labor to build the railroad because of the "immense emigration" that had taken place in the region.
Owners hired out their slaves for $150 a year. One of these, Friday Jones of Wake County, belonged to Tignal Jones. Friday worked on the railroad after being hired out to assist with the construction of the new State Capitol in Raleigh.
Beginning in Gaston, on the Roanoke River in Northampton County, workers made rapid progress. The railroad was operational to Henderson by Sept. 1, 1838.
Workers labored mightily on the bridge over the Tar River, which at 94 feet above the surface of the water was, according to the engineer, one of the tallest in the world.
The span of 825 feet was supported by four piers and abutments made with granite found near the site. The bridge was constructed at a cost of nearly $41,000.
The directors decided to build a depot in Franklin County, approximately four miles from the river, at a point where the railroad crossed the road leading from Hillsborough to Louisburg.
Named Franklin Depot (now Franklinton), this facility first saw rail traffic on Nov. 1, 1839. The railroad was completed to Raleigh the next year. While the railroad was being built, the board of directors began a stagecoach line that ran from Gaston to Fayetteville via Warrenton, Louisburg, and Raleigh.
As its proponents had hoped, the new railroad soon carried significant quantities of agricultural products grown in the fertile river valleys through which it ran.
During the year ending May 1, 1841, the depot at Henderson handled 2,544 hogsheads of tobacco, 377 bales of cotton, 348 barrels of flour, and 119 bushels of wheat.
The facility at Franklinton shipped smaller amounts of the same commodities. In the years to come, this economic engine would have a positive impact on the region.
Published in The Franklin Times on November 7, 2013.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College.
Photo Credits: Raleigh & Gaston Railroad locomotive courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina. Harper & Bros. map, North Carolina (1843), courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.