Fact Friday 422 - Early History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (The New South Era and The First Boom)

Fact Friday 422 - Early History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (The New South Era and The First Boom)

Happy Friday!

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


An 1860 stock slip for the North Carolina Railroad Company. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

The New South Era:
Before we trace Charlotte's development from town into city, it is necessary to look at the background of the New South movement. Prior to the Civil War the people of the South saw great virtue in the region's non-urban character. Historian Paul Gaston writes that Southerners proudly "viewed the Southern way of life as fundamentally different from and superior to that of the North." The moral "cleanliness" of the countryside compared to the "evil" of the city, and the sharply structured social system inherent in the plantation society, from planter to slave, were seen as contributing to a near-perfect society. Not only did Southerners not have large cities by the standards of the rest of the United States, they did not want large cities.

It was in this context that antebellum Charlotte existed. As late as 1860, North Carolina's largest town, the port of Wilmington, had only 9,552 people. The port of Charleston was the region's only large city, with 40,519 residents; South Carolina's second largest city was the capital of Columbia with but 8,052. All of the major towns were located on rivers in the coastal plain. Charlotte was back in the Piedmont and ten miles from the nearest river. Its gold mining interests and new railroads made it North Carolina's sixth largest "urban place," but it was little more than a village with 2,265 people, an indication of the state's rural character. 

The Civil War changed the region's anti-urban bias. As Gaston writes, it "completely destroyed the myth of invincibility and made it increasingly difficult to maintain the corollary myth of superiority." The war exposed the region as a land of "poverty in plenty," with abundant natural resources but no manufacturing capacity to utilize them. Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady traveled the region stirring Southerners to action with the woeful story of a Georgia burial:

They cut through solid marble to make his grave; and yet a little tombstone they put above him was from Vermont. They buried him in the heart of a pine forest, and yet the pine coffin was imported from Cincinnati. They buried him within touch of an iron mine, and yet the nails in his coffin and the iron in the shovel that dug his grave were imported from Pittsburgh. . .. They put him away. . . in a New York coat and a pair of breeches from Chicago and a shirt from Cincinnati. . . . The South didn't furnish a thing on earth for that funeral but the corpse and the hole in the ground.

Grady's tale colorfully articulated the basic theme of the age. The South had to recreate itself in an urban, industrial mold if it was to prosper. This movement for a "New South," as proponents proclaimed it, had its beginnings even before the last shot was fired in 1865, and gained momentum in the Reconstruction era of the late 1860s and early 1870s. After the 1870s depression ended, the movement blossomed. 

By that time a new postwar generation of New South leaders was in control. These men, often sons of the old planter elite, often trained in the North, unquestioningly worshipped all that was new, modern, and technological.

The battlecry of the New South era was the slogan "Bring the Mills to the Cotton." The South's climate and soil had made it the United States' cotton grower since 1793, but the mills that turned the cotton into clothing were primarily located in New England. There had been several good reasons for this. One of the most important was that New England's rocky river valleys provided the waterfalls needed to run water-powered machinery. In the 1870s, however, steam power took over from water power. Now the mills could move anywhere that there was a continuous supply of water to make steam. Investors began to heed the New South's boosters' cries and build their mills in the South.

By the time the early New South leaders turned their power over to the next generation in the 1910s and 1920s, the change in direction had been accomplished. The South had a manufacturing base in textiles and was diversifying into other fields. It was becoming urban, with one-fourth of North Carolina residents living in urban places, the largest of which were unquestionably cities. In contrast to the antebellum period, the South now wanted cities and eagerly financed such urban symbols as suburbs and skyscrapers, even in places which really had, as Charlotte journalist W. J. Cash observed, "little more use for them than a hog has for a morning coat." 

The First Boom -- the Mills Came to the Cotton, 1880-1893:
Already a leader in cotton trade, Charlotte entered the cotton manufacturing era after the 1870s depression. In 1880 the city got its first successful cotton mill. The Charlotte Cotton Mill established by R. M. and D. W. Oates "initially contained 6,240 spindles and employed approximately seventy people, mostly women." Part of the original mill survives on West Fifth street at Graham in Fourth ward, a one story building with arched window openings in the style of the most up-to-date New England mills of the day. The Charlotte Cotton Mill, said the Charlotte Daily Observer, "will add much to Charlotte's material prosperity no one doubts, and some predict that it will be the means of bringing similar enterprises into operation." 

D. A. Tompkins proved the paper right when he came to town in 1882. A relative of John C. Calhoun, Tompkins was a native of Edgehill, South Carolina, and a prototypical New South leader who went North to earn a civil engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He returned south to Charlotte in charge of selling Westinghouse steam engines and machinery to the new mills and industry of the region. In 1883 he struck off on his own and founded the D. A. Tompkins Company which specialized in setting up cotton mills. The company was also a pioneer in developing cotton seed oil plants, creating a new regional industry from the previously discarded cotton seed. Over the next twenty years Tompkins' firm designed and built all or part of 250 cotton oil mills and more than 100 cotton mills. 

Tompkins authored books on mill development that set forth standard designs for mills and mill villages throughout the South. He spoke widely urging industrialization, devised investment plans to attract new mills, helped set up colleges at Clemson and Raleigh to teach textile engineers and chemists, and lobbied strenuously for favorable legislation. Even Atlanta, which considered itself the center of the New South, recognized Tompkins' pre-eminence. Atlanta Constitution editor Clark Howell stated flatly that Tompkins "did more for the industrial south than any other man." Today historians consider Tompkins one of the most important of the New South leaders. 

D. A. Tompkins' activities helped make Charlotte the center of the developing Carolina Piedmont textile region. He also constructed four cotton mills in the city between 1889 and 1893 at the height of the nationwide building boom that swept Charlotte. Three opened in 1889 for other owners: the Alpha at Twelfth and Brevard and the Ada at Eleventh near Graham, both at what was then the northeastern edge of the city, and the Victor mill on what is now Clarkson Street which was then just outside the city to the northwest. 

The 1893 Atherton Mill, then far south of the city at what is today South Boulevard and Tremont streets, was all Tompkins'. It was the first mill owned and operated, as well as erected, by his company, and Tompkins used it to demonstrate his new ideas. These included his belief that mill workers with their rural backgrounds should not be corrupted by closeness to town, indoor plumbing, or quarters more spacious than "one operative for each room of the house." The best preserved house in the Atherton mill village has been designated a local Historic Property: a three-dimensional illustration from his influential 1899 book, Cotton Mills: Commercial Features.

The boom of the 1880s attracted other cotton-related industries. By 1889 the city directory listed the four cotton mills, plus six industrial machinery sellers led by the long-established Mecklenburg Iron Works and the new Liddell foundry, three clothing factories, two cotton ginners, one cotton oil mill and a manufacturer of cotton bagging and ties. A fifth cotton mill opened in 1892, Highland Park Manufacturing Company #1 headed by W. E. Holt and C. E. Johnston. With all this industrial development the town of Charlotte grew into a small city.

If D. A. Tompkins had been the New South leader most responsible for Charlotte's industrial growth, Edward Dilworth Latta was the leading force in the town's physical transformation into a city. A prototypical New South leader, he was a South Carolina descendant of Mecklenburg County plantation owner James Latta, and he had traveled North to what is today Princeton University for his education. Edward Dilworth Latta opened a clothing store in Charlotte in 1876 and soon expanded into pants manufacturing. In 1890 he joined with five associates to form the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company, known as the Four Cs. This company became the prime agent in Charlotte's urban development into the early twentieth century.

Horse-drawn streetcars began running down the center of Trade street and Tryon street in 1887. In 1890 the Four Cs bought the franchise and under the personal direction of Thomas Edison completely rebuilt it as an electric trolley car line. This was part of a movement that swept the nation in the five years after the first reliable electric transit system was perfected in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888.

In Charlotte electric cars started operation on two lines May 18, 1891. One followed its overhead wire the length of Trade street from McDowell street on one edge of town to the railroad station on West Trade on the other. At the Square it crossed the second track, which ran on Tryon street from the Carolina Central station at Twelfth street all the way out South Tryon. But there the cars did not stop at the edge of the city. They kept right on going out into the farmland where the Four Cs were developing Dilworth.

Dilworth was Charlotte's first suburb, the beginning of the city we know today. Businessmen had been commuting to their new suburban homes in the big cities of the North since the 1870s, and the New South leaders were determined to bring this new urban fashion to Charlotte. The Four Cs offered both lots and completed homes for sale and used an aggressive advertising campaign to lure buyers out of the city. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, however, few lots sold. D. A. Tompkins kept the project afloat by purchasing a block at the southern edge of the suburb for his Atherton mill village in 1892. Even with Charlotte's first long-term payment plan -- "buy a house with your rent money" ran the slogan -- there were less than one hundred houses in Dilworth as late as March, 1898. 

By the early 1890s Charlotte was a little city with big-city ambitions. The 1890 census counted a respectable 11,557 people, but still less than the capitals of Columbia and Raleigh and far behind the Carolinas' ports of Charleston and Wilmington. Despite the fact that the town was still small enough for easy walking it now had a costly trolley network and a suburb, built and kept alive by New South leaders who believed that Charlotte's growth would soon justify them.



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

Email chris@704shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin

Back to blog