Chapter 10 "The Coming Of The Iron Horse"

Chapter 10


"JEB, did y'hear the news?" "What news is that?"

"There's gonna be a railroad. Yessir, Giles Mebane's got them legislators down at Raleigh to build us a railroad."

"Is that fact now?" said Jeb. "Well, sure will be som'in'-if it's true. I'll believe it, though, when I see it. Git up there, mules!"

Jeb's blacksnake whip cracked sharply across the backs of the team, and the mules lurched forward with the heavy wagon. So there was going to be a railroad, was there? Jeb turned the news over slowly in his mind. He recalled the big meeting they had held over at William Albright's place in Chatham County back in 1828. Folks had been there from all over the State and there had been a lot of talk about building railroads and about how one day there would be tracks clear across North Carolina from east to west. Twenty years had passed, however, and nobody had started building such a railroad. Here it was 1850 and there were only two railroads in the whole State, and both of them were down east. Jeb thought about the load of tobacco on his wagon. Ever since he could remember, farmers had taken their tobacco down to Weldon, nailing shafts to the hogsheads or kegs and forcing their horses or mules to drag them over the long road to the Roanoke River. Why, with a railroad, a body could just load his crop into box cars and ship it right to Virginia.

"Say, Thompson. Heard 'bout the railroad?"

Thompson raised his head from the furrow he was ploughing and wiped the sweat away. "What railroad, Jeb?"

"Why the one they gonna build through here. The one they gonna build right through Alamance County!"



Within a few days everybody was talking about the news.

The General Assembly had chartered a North Carolina Railroad Company and authorized it to issue $3,000,000 worth of stock to build a railroad from Goldsboro to Charlotte. The State, itself, promised to buy two-thirds of this stock as soon as private investors raised the other $1,000,000.

And which way was this railroad going to run? That was the main question which everyone was asking. Well, said the company engineers, the shortest distance was by way of Pittsboro and Asheboro-but there were a lot of curves and steep grades along that route. Maybe they would build it by way of Hillsboro and Graham and Greensboro. It was twenty miles farther that way-

General Ben Trollinger, who ran the cotton mill at Haw River, suggested that the road be constructed by his mill. He was willing to build the bridges which would be needed across the river. Several other influential men backed up his idea. The railroad must come through Alamance County, they said. And so it did.

Land along the proposed railroad became valuable. Dozens of families left their homes in the Hawfields section and moved to the village that came to be known as Mebanesville and later as Mebane.

Nearly two years passed before the necessary money was in hand, but at last, in the summer of 1851, the first ground for the new railroad was broken at Greensboro, and the mighty project got underway. Four thousand tons of iron arrived from England to be forged into spikes and rails. Eighteen hundred men and boys, both slave and free, began laying the tracks. While thousands of citizens anxiously waited, the iron ribbon spread slowly across the State.

Four years after the work started, the construction crew reached the village of Mebanesville. The first "iron horse" arrived there on a Spring day in 1855, and one citizen recalled colorful details of the event:

"The first locomotive, at that time the eighth wonder of the world to the people in the surrounding country, came puffing up to the depot at Mebanesville. The eyes of one hundred people stared in open-eyed wonder at the strange monster; other eyes sparkled



in expectation of a three-mile ride to Back Creek bridge. This was indeed a proud and glorious day for old Alamance . . .

"The engine which stood ready to pull the car in which the whole crowd packed for a free ride bore the name of that grand old man and noble statesman, Giles Mebane . . . "*

General Trollinger and his brother-in-law, Dr. D. A. Montgomery, completed the Haw River Bridge on September 12, and the railroad was extended to Graham on September 18 and to Gibsonville by October 15. The eastern and western spans of the track, built separately, were joined at Greensboro on January 29, 1856, and the first trains passed through on the following day.

The era of bad roads and poor travel was ended; the era of the "iron horse" had begun.


Before the first rails were laid, the North Carolina Railroad Company selected a location where they could build repair and maintenance shops. It was a good, well-elevated piece of land slightly west of the village that is now Glen Raven, almost equally distant from both ends of the railroad. The Board of Directors had turned down Greensboro, Hillsboro, Goldsboro and several other cities in favor of this site. With confidence they sent agents to buy the necessary lots. They were shocked when it suddenly became apparent that the people in western Alamance did not want the railroad shops and that they could not be persuaded to sell land to the railroad.

Slightly affronted at this refusal, the directors put their heads together once more and chose a second site. They could route the tracks a block north of the Alamance County Courthouse in Graham and would build the shops on the edge of that small village.

The news struck Graham like a swarm of bees. Preposterous! To have their neat little village ruined by a railroad. Think of all the smoke and noise. Why, think of the menace those iron monsters would be to wandering livestock, not to mention unwary citizens and the dignity of the county court. No railroad or railroad shops were going to be put up within a mile of their courthouse. They passed an ordinance to that effect.

* Beecher, George, op. cit., p. 13.






One of the original "Company Shops" of the North Carolina Railroad, where locomotive repairs were made, stands today near the Burlington passenger depot. East of the depot, adjoining the railroad tracks, can be seen some of the homes built for "Company Shops" employees.



For the Railroad Company, this was insult added to injury, They decided to ignore these impertinent Alamancians. Maybe Greensboro would be better, at that. Had not Ben Trollinger come to the rescue at this point, the county might have lost the shops altogether. General Trollinger was a man of foresight. The railroad, he said, could build shops on his property two miles west of Graham. The offer was quickly accepted before the General could change his mind, and in his report to the stockholders in 1854, the Railroad President announced the choice.

"The Board . . . after encountering some difficulty, finally succeeded in securing some 632 1/2 acres of land, at a cost of $6,748.37, which is composed of several tracts, and is deemed a suitable location, lying in the county of Alamance, some three or four miles East from the centre of the Line. "*

General Trollinger and his associates began a campaign to raise enough money to buy this land for the Railroad. Graham merchants were willing to contribute on one condition-the Railroad Company must agree that no lots would be sold and that no business establishments would be erected at the shops. Such an agreement was drawn up and company officials signed it. Through an error the paper was never recorded, however, and it disappeared mysteriously a short time afterwards.

Besides General Trollinger's land, the railroad tract included the property of Nancy and Willis Sellars, Henry Tarpley, Steve Richardson and James Fonville. It is possible to trace a part of this land back to Ephraim Cook and William O'Neal who purchased it from the Earl of Granville in 1774.

The first building put up in Company Shops was a long, one-story frame structure operated as a lodging house by James Dixon. It stood near the present city tobacco warehouses and was called "The Boiling Brook." Shortly afterwards, in 1856, Jonathan Worth & Company erected a railroad commissary, the first business establishment, on the site now occupied by the Burlington freight depot. It was a two-story brick building. The first floor was divided into Daniel Worth's general store, the railroad station, and the village post office, where Peter D. Swain was postmaster.

* Fourth Annual Report, N. C. Railroad, July, 1854.



The Masonic Hall occupied the second floor and served the community as a meeting place and as a place of worship.

Dr. Alexander Wilson, the Irish-Presbyterian minister for whom a county school was named, delivered the earliest sermons in this hall, but several years passed before there were regular church services at the shops.

The Railroad Company hired Huston and McKnight, a Greensboro building firm, to construct the company shops, and Colonel John Hardin to grade the shop yards. Seven brick and lime mortar shops were built on the highest and best elevations in the village, without regard for the future city which would surround them. These included a foundry, a wood shop, a locomotive repair shop, a blacksmith's shop, an engine shed and two car sheds. Eight small homes were built for shop mechanics and three homes for Company officials.

One of the finest lots in the railroad property was a green-turfed square shaded by large oaks which lay between Front and Andrews Streets, adjoining Main Street. On this lot, today a business block, the two story brick Railroad Office building was built. The North Carolina Railroad was controlled for many years from: this headquarters.


Shortly after the shops were finished in 1857, the railroad company decided "to build a hotel boarding house not to exceed $8,000 in cost."* The Hotel was a large two-story building of brick and wood with wide verandas on three sides. By the time it was completed the cost was nearer $30,000.

The Hotel was only a stone's throw from the railroad tracks on the lot that lies between Andrews Street and the present passenger depot. Miss Nancy Hillard took over its management, and soon the fame of her culinary skill spread all along the railroad. Trains were stopped for twenty minutes at the village to allow passengers to eat lunch in the massive hotel dining room. "Drummers" or traveling salesmen frequently "put up" at the Hotel, and rented a horse and buggy from the nearby blacksmith in which

* Report of the Worth Committee; N. C. Executive and Legislative Documents, 1857-59, No. 71, Raleigh, 1819.




they could call on all the country stores for miles around. Railroad men left grimy streaks of soot on the sheets of the Hotel beds, but they ate heartily and spent freely, and the village flourished.

By 1857 the village had grown to twenty-seven buildings. Thirty nine white men, twenty negro slaves and two free negroes were employed in or around the shops. Minor repairs were made on the Company cars and locomotives, and the foundry turned out car wheels and other parts for the "iron horse." The Company had in use six passenger, eight freight and two gravel locomotives, eighty-four box cars, eighty-six cars of other types, and soon was able to add seven additional locomotives. Daniel Worth handled the station agent's work at the Shops, and J. S. Scott ran the Graham Station, General Trollinger served in Haw River, H. S. Hazell at Gibsonville and J. R. Faucett in Mebane.

Company Shops was a quiet, complacent little village until the telegraph came in 1861. The Railroad Company erected poles for telegraph lines and citizens began to drop in at the railroad office to inquire about the news. Gradually, they became aware of the trouble which was brewing in the outside world, the gathering of war clouds. Conversation in the dining room of the Hotel suddenly changed to anxious dicussion of the national situation. Abraham Lincoln had become President. South Carolina and other Southern States seceded from the Union.

Then it came. On a quiet morning in April, 1861, the clanking telegraph instrument brought an ominous message. Fort Sumter had been attacked by South Carolina Troops . . . the War had begun.









Chapter 5

Chapter 11

Chapter 16

Chapter 21

Chapter 1

Chapter 6

Chapter 12

Chapter 17


Chapter 2

Chapter 7

Chapter 13

Chapter 18

Book Index

Chapter 3

Chapter 8

Chapter 14

Chapter 19

Chapter 4

Chapter 9

Chapter 15

Chapter 20