In two weeks, the 80th annual Cotton Bowl Classic will be played (No. 3 Michigan St. vs. No. 2. Alabama) in Dallas. And over the past few weeks (NoDa Then & Now, Flashback Friday at Atherton Mill), we established that it was cotton, not banking, that fueled Charlotte’s economic boom in the mid to late 1800s. Initially, because of its railway system, Charlotte was major hub for cotton produced in other areas to be transported throughout the region and other areas of the country, especially to the north. This was very much in line with Charlotte’s history as a trade center.
A major shift occurred, however, when local industrialists decided to transition Charlotte from a pass-through economy to a production economy. No longer would Charlotte simply be a storage and stopping point for cotton on its way elsewhere. Why not make the cotton right here? Robert Marcus Oates founded the first cotton mill in city in 1880, named Charlotte Cotton Mills. Though it was only the 3rd mill in the county, it would have more significance than its predecessors as it was the first within the city limits and was the only one operating at the time. Eventually overtaken by larger mills, CCM was dissolved in 1910. However, a few reminders are still visible of Charlotte's first cotton mill: the brick arched windows on 5th Street, and the name of the narrow street parallel to and between 5th and 6th, Oates Street.
A talented engineer and designer, native South Carolinian Daniel Augustus Tompkins would later move to Charlotte in 1883 to further develop the industry and attempt to spur the diversification of agriculture. Tompkins had previously secured a franchise from the Westinghouse Machine Company (Pittsburgh), so in his early years, his interest in cotton mills was only as a contractor. In 1887 alone, he and his business partners had 8 mills built. The partnership was dissolved and in that same year, the D. A. Tompkins Co. incorporated.
In just over 20 years, by 1910, the company had helped build at least 250 cotton oil mills, 150 electric plants, and 100 cotton mills. Atherton Mills would be the only one that he both owned and ran.
The tower of the D. A. Tompkins Co. Building on South Church Street afforded early Charlotteans the best panoramic views of their city. Most of the industrializing city that Tompkins helped oversee was visible here in 1906 from the tower of one of his many factories, which was equal in height to a 14-story building.
Tompkins owned a controlling interest in three newspapers: Charlotte Evening News, Greenville (S.C.) News, and the Charlotte Daily Chronicle, a local newspaper started in 1886, which he and a business partner purchased in 1892. Its older competitor, the Charlotte Daily Observer, folded that year and the Charlotte Daily Chronicle would adopt its name, becoming the Charlotte Observer. Tompkins also owned The Observer Printing House, which published many pamphlets and speeches under his name, as well as several books. He used his media platforms to promote his support and commitment to laissez-faire capitalism and opposition of public reforms for better industrial working conditions including the regulation of child labor. He was also a devoted defender of what he called “Anglo Saxon values.” Per Dan L. Morrill, retired UNC Charlotte professor and Charlotte historian, this was a code name for White Supremacy.
The Observer’s new success led to its relocation to the Tompkins Tower from its offices on South Tryon in 1914, and it published there until 1923. It is unclear when the tower was demolished, but city directories for the 1930s show the site as a host for manufacturing agents, cotton brokers, and general contractors. In the 1940s and 50’s, the area around the former tower was home to a newspaper again, this time the much smaller Charlotte News. Today, the site is used as a parking lot for the Wachovia Building, built in 1958 and seen to the left of the above shot.
Until next week!
Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!
Information taken from:
Charlotte Then & Now, 2013, Brandon D. Lunsford
Historic Charlotte, An Illustrated History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, 2001, Dan L. Morrill
Additional commentary added.