Riding the rails
Published October 27, 2022
By Lib Campbell
The American love affair with the railroads began in the 1720s when wooden rails, known as “wagonways,” began to transport freight and goods across a country that was more than ready to increase commercial opportunities. In 1812, Colonel John Stevens conceived of railroads capable of carrying freight over larger and larger swaths of America. The first train carrying passengers belonged to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, with a premier rail trip on February 28, 1827.
On Christmas Day 1830, when the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company offered the first mechanical passenger train, the “modern” railroad industry was born. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. A pretty complete US rail system was built by 1910. Railroads contributed greatly to the Industrial Revolution in our country, as people, produce and goods could be transported more quickly than ever.
In 1828, Joseph Caldwell, the first president of the University of North Carolina, lamented the back-breaking work and wear and tear of laborers and merchants whose toil could “break them like men of glass.” He envisioned North Carolina embracing the “new technology of railroads” by proposing “an extensive rail network as a solution to the problem.”
North Carolina becomes part of the story of rail in 1849, when the North Carolina Railroad Company chartered and built 223 miles of rail between Charlotte and Goldsboro. Today the North Carolina Railroad Company maintains 317 miles of rails between Morehead City and Charlotte, serving economic interests and impacting one-fourth of the state’s economy from the coast to the Piedmont. For any of us who grew up in Eastern North Carolina, most of our small towns had train stations.
Some people say the Golden Age of Rail was from the 1880s until the 1920s. The invention and rise of automobiles and airplanes took a toll on the rail business. Consolidation and bankruptcies dried up the profits and fortunes of big rail that was held in the hands of a few owners
In Ayden, the train station was built beside the track in the middle of town. At the height of train travel in the early 1920s and 30s, Ayden had enough traffic and commerce to build a small hotel within walking distance of the station. The railroad was important to towns like mine, but when rail traffic declined, many small North Carolina towns dried up with it. Ayden struggled and many small towns dried up altogether. A ride through eastern North Carolina tells the story.
When Richard Nixon was president, Congress passed the Rail Passenger Act of 1970. On May 1, 1970, Amtrak began to revive the rails, many of which had gone quiet. They are quiet no longer. The NC By Train Program, now 32 years old, recently recorded a milestone. Governor Cooper announced that, “a record number of people rode North Carolina’s passenger trains in September, marking a strong recovery from downturns in the COVID Pandemic.” Almost 50,000 people rode the Piedmont and Carolinian Amtrak Trains last month. According to DOT, North Carolina trains have recovered and been strong since April 2022. Good news for North Carolina.
When the October rail service numbers are totaled, my family will count for four of them. Last week we left a beautiful new Union Station in the renovated Dillon Supply building on an Amtrak Silver Star to Washington, DC, then on to NYC. The Raleigh Union Station is structural, trendy, with glass and open spaces for events more than just train service. We boarded the train easily, without the hassle I usually experience at the airport. Train travel is comfortable, civil, and congenial. People chatted with each other. I even saw a man share a blueberry muffin with a stranger. We were a rail community for a little while as we rode to DC.
There is joy riding the train. Seeing the landscape, the small communities built up along the tracks, industrial and freight companies that have come and gone, the tagging along trestles and overpasses, delighting in October leaves in full color from NC to New York becomes not only a social study, it is a history lesson. Riding the rails beats glaring at the rear taillights of the car in front of me. Riding the rails sure beats the speeding, the road rage, and the flipping off that comes from irate drivers. At some point, as rail is grown between towns for light local traffic, we might just see environmental impacts of fewer cars on the road.
The lure and love of a train has long been a source of stories in movies and song. From Lionel to little boys, and from visionaries of long ago and of today, another Golden Age may be upon us. As people look for easier and less expensive ways of travel, Amtrak is the way to go. Riding the rails just may be a habit for the future.
Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist Pastor, retreat leader and columnist who blogs at www.avirtualchurch.com. You may contact her at email@example.com