Fact Friday 421 - Early History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (1800-1870s)

Fact Friday 421 - Early History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (1800-1870s)

Happy Friday!

This week's Fact Friday comes to you from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.


This photo shows the Atherton Cotton Mill which opened in 1893.

The Gold Mining Center, 1800s-1850s:

Not long after the Revolutionary War, Mecklenburg County took part in an agricultural revolution that was to shape the urban development of the South. In 1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in Georgia. The machine allowed cotton to be cheaply cleaned so that it could be spun into thread. All over the South a plantation economy quickly developed to produce short-staple cotton to fill the new demand. The plantations, run by slave labor, were largely self sufficient, producing their own food, clothing and implements and supplying adjoining small farmers. The plantations had little need for urban manufacturing or trade, except with river towns through which raw cotton was shipped to Northern or English mills.

Mecklenburg never had plantations on the scale of the rich lands of the low-country counties, but it was very much a part of the plantation economy. Eventually Mecklenburg had thirty plantations each employing twenty-five or more slaves, with dozens of smaller farms, most growing some cotton. The finest estates were on the rich bottom lands along the Catawba River and the creeks that fed into it. Except when there were legal matters to resolve, the plantations had little occasion to do business with Charlotte, according to Davidson College historian Dr. Chalmers Davidson, an expert on the era. Cotton was usually shipped overland to Cheraw, South Carolina, head of navigation on the Yadkin/Pee Dee river system. If it had relied only on the plantation economy, Charlotte might well have remained the sleepy courthouse village that George Washington saw.

Two events lifted Charlotte out of its minor place on the periphery of the plantation economy. They were the discovery of gold in 1799 and the coming of the railroad in 1852. These new stimuli assured that Charlotte would grow as a trading town.

In 1799 farmer John Reed found a seventeen pound gold nugget on his farm twenty-five miles east of the village of Charlotte, south of Concord in Cabarrus County. Reed used the rock as a doorstop until 1802 when a jeweler recognized it as gold, setting off the United States first gold rush. As discoveries spread to nearby counties in North and South Carolina, Charlotte became the trade center of America's first gold production region. Two of the era's richest mines were less than two miles from the Square: the Rudisill near Summit Avenue between Mint and Tryon streets, and the St. Catherine near the corner of Graham and West Morehead.

By 1835 production was so heavy that the U. S. Treasury decided to open a branch mint in Charlotte. A fine NeoClassical building was completed in 1837. Designed by noted Philadelphia architect William Strickland, it stood near the corner of West Trade and Mint Streets until 1933 when it was dismantled and rebuilt in the Eastover neighborhood for use as an art museum. Between 1838 and 1861 the Charlotte mint coined more than $5 million in gold pieces. After the Civil War the building reopened as an assay office until 1913, though Charlotte had given up its lead in U. S. gold production with the legendary California gold rush of 1849. Gold production largely ceased in the l910s, except for a brief flurry during the 1930s Depression, but investors still hold the mines, waiting for gold prices to rise enough to make production again profitable.

The Charlotte gold rush brought miners, engineers and metallurgists to the city, and is credited with the establishment of banks here. As important, it made the city the trading center not just for Mecklenburg, but for a region of several counties as miners brought their gold in to be assayed and smelted. By 1850 Charlotte had 1,065 people.

The Railroad Center, 1850s-1870s:

More than any other event, the arrival of the railroad in 1852 set Charlotte on its way to being the largest city in the Carolinas. When the Charlotte and South Carolina completed its track up from Columbia in that year, it was one of the first railways in the western half of North Carolina. Suddenly Charlotte had the advantage over the half-dozen similar sized villages in the region.

In 1854 the State of North Carolina began work on a state-owned railroad from Raleigh and Goldsboro to Charlotte, in part to connect the eastern cities with the railroad to Columbia. This North Carolina Railroad, passing through Greensboro and Salisbury, made Charlotte an important railroad junction. It also made the city for the first time truly a part of North Carolina, for it was finally as easy to go east to Raleigh as it had been to go south down the river valleys to Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina.

Charlotte's importance increased with addition of two more lines in the next seven years. In 1860 a railroad company grandly known as the Atlantic, Tennessee, and Ohio began running trains out of the city. Despite its impressive name, the line only went from Charlotte to Statesville, North Carolina. Its rails were cannibalized by Confederate forces late in the Civil War to repair more vital rail links, and it did not reopen until 1874, as part of the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line. In 1861 the first leg of the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherford Railroad connected Charlotte and Lincolnton, North Carolina. 

With four railroads now converging on the city, Charlotte became an excellent location for trade and industry. Between 1850 and 1860 the population zoomed from 1,065 to 2,265. By the eve of the Civil War, Charlotte had grown from a village to a town.

In 1861 the South launched the bitter battles of the War Between the States. Though Union raiders hit nearby settlements, and it was feared that General Sherman planned to invade the town on his swing north from Georgia near the end of the conflict, Charlotte survived the war untouched. In fact, the conflict proved to be a great economic boost for the city, as Charlotte became a center of wartime industry. The Mecklenburg Iron Works, the town's major industry on the eve of the War, cast Confederate cannon. Other factories here produced gunpowder, chemicals, woolen goods, and canteens. 

Most important, and least likely for this landlocked city, Charlotte was the home of the Confederacy's Naval Yard. In 1862 it appeared that the existing naval yard at Norfolk Virginia, might be lost to Union forces. All machinery and stores were packed up and sent inland to Charlotte for the duration of the war. Charlotte was chosen because of its already established iron works and because of the railroad network that connected it to seaports.

The new Naval Ordinance Works, next to the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad tracks near the site of the present Civic Center downtown, "employed some 1500 men and boys, It consisted of a smithy, foundry, machine shops, rigging loft, laboratory and other departments." In addition to military material it turned out "the necessary repair parts to keep the South's locomotives, mining, textile, and farm machinery in running order." Many of the workers settled across East Trade street in what is now First Ward, causing that area to be nicknamed Mechanicsville. 

Though Union troops made raids as near as Salisbury, present-day Gastonia, and Fort Mill, Charlotte never came under attack, In the closing months of the war over 1300 refugees flooded the village. Among them was the widow of Stonewall Jackson, who stayed on to become the town's leading citizen for several decades. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his advisers held what may have been the Confederacy's last cabinet meeting at a house on North Tryon street, whose site is now marked by a plaque. 

The refugees who stayed on and the skilled workers from the naval yard and gold mines helped to form the basis for a boom period following the war's end in 1865. In the first half of 1867 alone, "twelve stores and some seventy-five other buildings, many of them dwellings, some of industrial character were built in Charlotte," according to local historian LeGette Blythe. "During the five years after the war the city grew remarkably, with money from the reopened gold mines and capital furnished by northern industrialists as the tonic that seeded development. In 1871 a fourth bank was established, another indication that Charlotte was fast becoming a leading industrial center." 

Population virtually doubled from 2,265 in 1860 to 4,473 in 1870. The village had begun to rise in importance in the county with the coming of the railroads, and this trend continued as the end of slavery had its impact on the self-sufficient plantation economy of the rural areas. Charlotte contained only eight percent of Mecklenburg County's people in 1850, but rose to thirteen percent in 1860 and eighteen percent by 1870. 

An 1875 city directory summed up the changes:

Up to and even to the close of the late war, the commercial interests of Charlotte were of much smaller significance than they are now, Ten years of trade, which has poured into her lap since the last gun was fired on the 24th of April, 1865, has added materially to the wealth, influence and prosperity of the City of Charlotte. 
This prosperity was not limited to Charlotte. It was part of a nationwide boom following the Civil War, and the city's railroad ties enabled the city to take part in it, Charlotte was now tied firmly to the national economy and its fluctuations.

Charlotteans recognized how much their good fortune depended on rail links, and they used the proceeds of the postwar prosperity to build new lines. In 1872 the city added its fifth railroad, the Carolina Central, which connected Charlotte directly with the port of Wilmington. In 1874 the rails were re-laid on the pre-war line to Statesville and new roadbed was built southeast from the city through Gastonia. The result was christened the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line, and soon stretched from Richmond to Atlanta. In a period when most of the capital for a new line came from local public subscription, this new construction so soon after the war was strong proof of Charlotte's economic vitality.

The key to the vitality was new trade, trade in cotton. Even before the Civil War and long before the city saw its first cotton mill, Charlotte boomed as a cotton trading center. An observer in 1875 wrote:

Up to the year 1852, the cotton raised in the vicinity of Charlotte. . .not consumed immediately through the aid of the old fashioned loom, wheel and cards was forced to seek a market. . .by being hauled to Fayetteville, Camden, Cheraw, or Charleston by wagons. . . When the completion of the Charlotte and Columbia Railroad took place in 1852, for the first time in the history of Charlotte she had an outlet -- a highway to the sea. Three years later and the iron chain which connects us with Norfolk, Virginia, was finished, and a stimulus given to the cotton trade which no other advantage could have conferred. Situated at the terminus of both roads, competition between them at once enabled the cotton dealer here to pay the very highest price for the staple.

Since that time railroads have been added to, until we have the network alluded to in the former sketch. Over the Richmond and Atlanta Air Line Railroad (originally Charlotte and Atlanta), the great short route between New York and New Orleans, and which penetrates some of the richest country tributary to our market, Charlotte has received an immense impetus to the cotton trade, The Atlantic, Tennessee and Ohio (the line to Statesville) has poured a considerable trade into our market The upper section of the Carolina Central, leading from Lincolnton to Charlotte, has been equally instrumental in increasing the cotton trade here. Countless numbers of bales have been brought to Charlotte from the direction of Chester and Rock Hill, in South Carolina, over the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad (originally the Charlotte and South Carolina), while the North Carolina Railroad gives the people all along its line, from Charlotte to Lexington, however paradoxical it may seem, a market in Charlotte for their cotton. 

The essay went on to trace the growth of Charlotte's cotton trade since the first line opened:

In 1855, the annual sales of cotton on this market was less than three thousand bales. In 1860, on account of this railroad influence, the trade had gradually become of more importance, and had reached twelve thousand bales . . . With the crop of 1866, business in this line was again resumed, with about the same amount in the market as in 1860 -- 12,000 bales -- since which time it has increased annually until for the fiscal year ending August 31st, 1874, the actual sales reached forty thousand bales. 

It is worth noting that four years of war, including the closing of the railroad to Statesville, had little effect on cotton production in the region.

The scope of country of which Charlotte is the commercial cotton centre. . .includes. . .fourteen counties in North Carolina and at least eleven in South Carolina. . .. (S)he has reached the exalted position of being the first and principal cotton market in the state. , .. (I)n future years when we shall be able to . . .convert her into a manufacturing town, as will most assuredly be done. we may justly look forward to a brighter career of prosperity than has ever dawned upon us. 
The writer noted that Charlotte had also become an important wholesale market for a variety of goods, but, he said, "The cotton interest. . . is here superior to all others." 

The village was now a bustling small town, but it was not until the next decade that Charlotte was able to move into manufacturing. The city's integration into the wider national economy meant being part of the bad times as well as the good. In 1873 the United States began to slide into a major depression. According to historian Alan Nevins, it was "one of the worst in American history," with half a million men out of work by the beginning of 1875. The effects were felt first in the more industrialized Northeast, but by the mid-1870s "the South -- along with the rest of the nation -- was. . . in the grip of a severe depression, and hard times did not disappear until the end of the decade."



Charlotte Mecklenburg HLC Presents: The History and Growth of Charlotte, NC 

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