Fact Friday 423 - Early History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (The Second Boom)

Fact Friday 423 - Early History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (The Second Boom)

Happy Friday!

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


This photo was taken of some of the Atherton Mill workers in the early 20th century. The average age was 11 to 12 years old. Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. 

The Second Boom, 1897-1914:
In June 1893 the stock market crashed and the nation entered another depression. Nationwide this depression was felt more sharply than the one of the 1870s, but Charlotte began to pull out quickly. H. S. Chadwick established the Louise Cotton Mill on the Seaboard Railroad outside the city to the east near what is now Hawthorne Lane and Central Avenue in 1897. More mills quickly followed: the Magnolia in 1899, the Chadwick and the Elizabeth in 1901, the Hoskins, Highland Park #3 and the Mecklenburg in 1904, the Savona in 1908 and the Johnston in 1913. 

Other textile industries joined the mills during this boom which lasted until the First World War. Barnhardt Manufacturing, for instance, started in 1900 to reprocess cotton waste for upholstery padding. Several companies grew up to supply mill machinery to the region. In 1911 Clark Publishing began printing the weekly Southern Textile Bulletin. It was read throughout the South, another factor in the city's leadership in the textile field.

Though cotton remained the mainstay of the economy in this period, the city also attracted non-textile industries. Some that continue in 1982 are Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, established in 1900 and now credited "as being the oldest cast iron and soil pipe plant in America." Cole Manufacturing, founded the same year, still produces agricultural equipment in its handsome brick factory, designed by leading Charlotte architect C. C. Hook, off Central Avenue. In 1913 salesman Philip L. Lance began roasting peanuts and selling peanut butter crackers, a novel idea that has grown into one of the nation's major snack food companies, Lance, Incorporated. 

These boom years also saw the start of stores that became the city's three leading department stores. W. H. Belk, who had begun his merchandising career in nearby Monroe in 1888, decided to tackle Charlotte in 1895. Charlotte today is the headquarters for more than 400 Belk stores throughout the South. Competitor J. B. Ivey started the first store of what was to be another major chain in 1900, and in 1902 the first Efird's store opened, the beginning of a regional chain that eventually merged with Belk.

As important as the growing industries, the wholesalers, and the retailers were Charlotte's banks. They provided capital for new development not only in Charlotte but increasingly for the entire Piedmont. Many of the institutions that make Charlotte the banking center of the Carolinas today started during the boom following the 1893 depression. Charlotte National Bank, founded in 1897, grew by mergers to become part of the present Wachovia Bank and Trust Company. Southern States Trust, founded in 1901 by real estate developers F. C. Abbott, George Stephens and Word Wood, is the basis for today's mammoth NCNB Corporation. Present day First Union began in 1908 as Union National Bank. In the period Charlotte's most successful capitalists moved easily from mill ownership to banking to real estate development and back again.

The boom years saw the beginning of a shift from steam engines to electric power in the cotton mills, a shift that furthered Charlotte's position as center of the Piedmont textile region. James B. Duke was an extremely wealthy North Carolina native who built the immense American Tobacco Company headquartered in New York at the turn of the century. In 1897 Duke began buying water power sites along the Catawba River, convinced that the opportunity for many dams along its gentle drop would make it an important producer of hydroelectric power. The electric industry was still in its experimental stage, so J. B. Duke and his brother Ben teamed with another pair of brothers, Dr. W. Gill Wylie and Dr. Robert H. Wylie, who were pioneering hydroelectric technology with the help of an engineer, William States Lee. The partners' Southern Power Company began delivering electricity to customers in 1904. It slowly won over mill owners who had used steam, and the low rates were instrumental in attracting hundreds of additional industries to the region over the next decades. Today known as Duke Power, the company is still headquartered in Charlotte.

Duke also added the city's seventh rail line at the height of the pre-World War I boom period. His Piedmont and Northern Railway was an electric interurban line which ran from Charlotte to Gastonia beginning in 1911. It symbolized Charlotte's power over surrounding smaller cities, whose residents would regularly ride the interurban or one of the other railroads into the big city to shop and do other business. The P & N tracks are still in use today, though they were converted to diesel power in 1950 and are now part of the Seaboard system.

Charlotte's final new railroad came to town in 1913. The Norfolk and Southern track came from Virginia via Albemarle and Raleigh, and today is part of the Southern. By the height of the New South boom years, Charlotte was the hub of rail lines stretching in eight directions.

With the booming economic growth came tremendous physical expansion. Between 1900 and 1910 the city grew from 18,091 to 34,014 people, an 82 percent increase, larger than any other decade in this century. A band of suburbs sprang up completely ringing the city. Downtown, the commercial core expanded upward and outward, symbolically capped by the completion in 1909 of the Independence Building (originally Realty Building) on Independence Square, the Carolinas' first steel-frame skyscraper. 

Two maps from the period illustrate the growth. One dated 1892 shows the old grid city almost completely surrounded by farms beyond McDowell Street, Twelfth Street, Graham Street and Stonewall. The only outlying developments are Dilworth and the proposed streets of Belmont. A single trolley line leads out of the central city.

A 1917 map by planner John Nolen shows great changes in twenty five years. Now nine streetcar lines give access to downtown from every point on the compass.  Along each line are "streetcar suburbs" following the boundaries of the old farms, creating a ring completely surrounding the old city. In fact, in 1907 the city boundaries had been expanded to reflect the new growth. The new city covered 12.76 square miles, a 570 percent jump over the previous boundary drawn in 1885.

The prosperity and growth drew a sizable number of architects to the city for the first time. Prior to 1900 only C. C. Hook and his partner Frank Sawyer, and Frank Milburn and his protege L. E. Schwend were active in the city, all arrivals during the 1890s. They were joined by James M. McMichael in 1901, William H. Peeps and the partners L. L. Hunter and Franklin Gordon in 1905, M. I. T.-trained Louis Asbury in 1908, and Bungalow specialist Fred Bonfoey in 1908, among others. No longer did Charlotteans get their building designs just from published pattern books or talented local carpenters. By the height of the 1900s boom Charlotte had a true architectural community.

Dilworth prospered, and dozens of new subdivisions were created in these years, completing the city's first suburban ring. More research is needed in county plat records before they can all be identified. Many have passed from memory, absorbed in larger neighborhoods. Even F. C. Abbott, a leading real estate developer in the period, had forgotten some early ones by the time he wrote the memoirs that are today one of the best sources on Charlotte growth. Only a few of the important developments can be named here.

The first post-depression suburb was Elizabeth on the east side of the city. Developed in 1897 by W. S. Alexander's Highland Park Land Company, it now forms a small part of the Elizabeth neighborhood. Other subdivisions encompassed by present-day Elizabeth neighborhood include Piedmont Park, created by Piedmont Realty (F. C. Abbott, George Stephens and B. D. Heath) about 1899 from the old W. R. Myers farm, and Oakhurst, begun circa 1900 by B. D. Heath. This last was not the present neighborhood known as Oakhurst but rather a subdivision along Central Avenue between Louise Street and Thomas Avenue.

W. S. Alexander also platted the northwest side's first streetcar era suburb in 1897. Western Heights, north of West Trade Street below what is now Johnson C. Smith University, was originally settled by whites. In 1913 an important event took place further out Beatties Ford Road. Charlotte's first streetcar suburb developed by black capitalists for black residents opened. It was called Washington Heights after black educator Booker T. Washington. Street names honored the city's leading black residents, J. S. Saunders and Thad Tate, as well as national black leaders Booker T. Washington and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. A second "colored suburb" called Douglassville was platted along Oaklawn Avenue on the other side of Beatties Ford Road shortly thereafter, today part of the area known as McCrorey Heights. 

Two turn-of-the-century streetcar suburbs called Woodlawn and Irwin Park platted the avenues between Sycamore and Cedar streets in what is now called Third Ward downtown. The old Vail dairy farm roughly between Providence Road, Caswell Road, Vail Avenue, and Laurel Avenue was platted as Colonial Heights and Crescent Heights between 1907 and 1913. The Pegram-Wadsworth Land Company developed large parts of north Charlotte including Matheson Avenue and Pinckney Avenue beginning about 1907. Abbott Realty created Wilmore on the old Wilson and Moore farms at the end of South Mint Street in 1914. About the same time Chatham Estates began selling lots along the Plaza, Thomas Avenue, and Nassau Avenue, today the heart of Plaza Midwood.

The finest developments of the pre-World War I boom years were Myers Park and an extension of Dilworth, the city's first suburb. They showed the New South spirit at its best. George Stephens, son-in-law of one of the county's largest landowners, was a banker and real estate developer whose characteristically "New South" belief in modernity extended to city planning. He hired John Nolen, a budding national leader of the new profession, to lay out the vast suburb of Myers Park south of the city in 1911. Stephens' backing allowed Nolen to devise a "unified suburban design" for the 1220 acre tract far in excess of the small city's needs at the time. Detailed down to the individual lot plantings, it was a state-of-the-art achievement that had few parallels in the South or elsewhere in the United States. Myers Park became a model for numerous other suburbs in the region, and Nolen went on to become one of the United States' most important early planners.

At the very same time, another planning firm of even greater stature was at work in Dilworth. Edward Dilworth Latta, the city's New South streetcar and real estate magnate, had hired the famous Olmsted Brothers of Boston to plan what is today the Dilworth Road East and West area. The Olmsted Brothers' father, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., is known as the founder of American city planning and his sons matched his standard of excellence in projects ranging from the White House grounds to the Duke University campus. The Olmsteds' work in Dilworth was not as extensive as Nolen's in Myers Park, but their design has been as enduringly popular.

The fact that two planning firms of the Olmsteds' and Nolen's character were active at the same time in this small city of 34,000 is remarkable. It shows the civic pride of the New South era, and also the city's prosperity in these textile boom years. It is a testament to the first generation of New South leaders, men who were willing to get the best of what was new, even if it meant going outside the region and spending a great deal of money to do so. The planners' work represented almost as radical a change in the city's fabric as had the first suburb twenty years earlier. Nolen's and the Olmsteds' designs caused the city to forever abandon its tradition of grid-iron planning, and to instead adopt the use of tree-lined winding residential streets which followed the natural landscape.

Not all of the era's New South leaders were as thoughtful in their adoption of big city ideas. At the same time that Myers Park and Dilworth were being landscaped, downtown was stripped of its trees in the name of New South progress. Tryon Street was to be lined with electric lights and become "The Great White Way," a small-time imitation of New York City's Broadway. Visiting Cambridge landscape architect Paul B. Forest protested that the scheme was "the grossest error," but Mayor C. A. Bland, his Board of Alderman, and Duke Power had their way. In winter of 1912 the trees came down.

Charlotte's rate of expansion dropped somewhat in the late teens when U. S. entry into World War I put a stop to most civilian construction. By that time, however, Charlotte was clearly a city. It was headquarters of a large textile region, with a diversified economic base including banking, power generation and wholesaling. A bustling mass transit system, the backbone of big-city growth, now served an expanding ring of suburbs. In the 1910 census Charlotte pulled far ahead of Raleigh in population and finally overtook the port of Wilmington to become North Carolina's largest city, symbolizing the shift in the state's economy from cotton and tobacco export to textile production. Only the port of Charleston, South Carolina, remained larger in the Carolinas, and Charlotte was catching up fast.



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