Beginning in September 1827, Joseph Caldwell, first president of the University of North Carolina, published anonymously “Numbers of Carlton” for twenty-two weeks. The set of letters, which were bound and published as a book in 1828, was “addressed to the People of North Carolina on a central rail-road through the State.” On August 1, 1828, over 200 people gathered in present-day Alamance County to meet and respond to Caldwell’s pleas for the development of a state-supported railroad in North Carolina. The meeting led to the charter of the first state railroad, and to the subsequent increase of public interest in both the railroad and other internal improvements. The developments sparked interest in the Industrial Revolution and progress of the state as a whole.
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Caldwell came to North Carolina at the end of the eighteenth century to join the newly incorporated university at Chapel Hill. A mathematician, he served as president from 1804 until 1812, and again from 1817 until 1833. Caldwell’s Carlton letters included detailed ideas about the advantages, costs, and routes that the state government should pursue. The letters had a wide circulation, especially for the time, and were influential in developing public interest in the railroads. Caldwell hoped to see created a central railroad from New Bern to Asheville, creating access to the west and providing a boost to industry. Caldwell’s plansprovided a theoretical basis and practical motivation for the railroad system that later developed in North Carolina.
In 1831 the state legislature chartered the first railroad, the Fayetteville Railroad Company. Although the railroad was not built, it led to the charter of other companies in 1832, the Experimental Railroad Company, the Cape Fear and Yadkin Railroad, and the North Carolina Central Railroad. The Experimental Railroad Company, which was designed to move supplies into downtown Raleigh from Wake County in order to rebuild the State Capitol that was destroyed in 1831, was the first successful railroad in North Carolina. In 1833, the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad Company, renamed the Wilmington and Weldon, was founded. The Wilmington and Raleigh opened a 161-mile route in 1840 between Wilmington and Weldon via Goldsboro and Rocky Mount. At the time of opening, this railroad was the longest in the world, and exemplified the success of railroad development in North Carolina.
Railroad development, and the continued success of the North Carolina railroad system after its conception, stemmed from the 1828 meeting in Chatham County (present-day Alamance County) at the home of William Albright. The meeting demonstrated publicly the increasing interest in railroads and other technological innovations.
Cecil Kenneth Brown, A State Movement in Railroad Development (1928)
R. D. W. Connor, North Carolina: Rebuilding an Ancient Commonwealth, 1584-1925 (1929)
Joseph Caldwell, The Numbers of Carlton (1828), available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/caldwell/menu.html
Charles Clinton Weaver, Internal Improvements in North Carolina, Previous to 1860 (1903)
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)