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The Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Rail Road: Dreams of Linking North and South

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Among the grand antebellum plans to build railroads to interconnect the vast American republic, perhaps none was more ambitious than the Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston. The route was intended to link the cotton-producing South and the grain and livestock growers of the Old Northwest with traders and markets in the East, creating economic opportunities along its 700-mile length. But then came the Panic of 1837, and the project came to a halt. H. Roger Grant tells the incredible story of this singular example of "railroad fever" and the remarkable visionaries whose hopes for connecting North and South would require more than half a century—and one Civil War—to reach fruition.

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1 Slow, Difficult, and Dangerous Travel

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ROADS

Before the Railway Age Americans faced limited travel options. Nearly always they were slow, difficult, and potentially dangerous. There was little need to question the sardonic judgment made more than a century ago by Henry Adams. This historian and man of letters wrote that persons “struggling with the untamed continent in 1800 seemed hardly more competent to their task [of road improvements] than the beavers and buffalo which had for countless generations made bridges and roads of their own.”1

Although poor land transportation knew no geographical bounds, residents in interior sections of the Old South and the Old Northwest2 experienced severe challenges when they made overland treks by foot, on horseback, or in an animal-powered vehicle. No wonder, then, that from the earliest settlements through the antebellum decades the promotion of internal betterments, including roads, became a popular focus. Improvements to land transport seemed imperative for progress; people wanted to move more rapidly, reliably, and securely. “To persons who have reflected upon the subject of internal improvement, there is no maxim of political economy better understood than that agriculture and commerce will improve, and civilization and happiness spread in promotion as the facility of conveyance increases,” wrote a thoughtful Robert Mills, architect, civil engineer, and member of the South Carolina Board of Public Works, in 1821. “Where men are kept asunder by forests, morasses or inaccessible mountains, their knowledge must be circumscribed and their conveniences few. In proportion as the difficulty of communication is removed, the spirit of enterprise increases.” Yet in antebellum America the federal government did little to coordinate, design, fund, or construct domestic transportation improvements, although discussions and debates repeatedly occurred in Congress, state legislatures, courthouses, and elsewhere.3

 

2 A Rail Road?

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2

BEGINNINGS

No one knows the exact origin or date of the first railroad.1 It is probable that in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries mechanics and tinkerers in Great Britain and on the continent, especially in the German states, made the earliest developments. “Its invention, like most other valuable inventions of the present day [1829],” as an early student of railroads opined, “is the result of gradual improvement.” Fortunately, a free-flowing transfer of technology from the Old to the New World laid the foundation for the most significant invention in the development of modern society: the railroad. It mobilized, drove, and advanced the Industrial Revolution. During the Railway Age observers of the American scene likely agreed that the railroad seemed ideally suited for what Alexis de Tocqueville, that perceptive French visitor in the 1830s, called the “restless temper” found in the sprawling republic.2

Although it is impossible to date the “first” railroad, it is known that activities in Great Britain by the mid-1700s had led to the construction of widely scattered private “plateways,” “tramways,” or “waggonways” that served collieries and slate and stone quarries in England, Scotland, and Wales. These primitive affairs fit the standard definition of a railroad: an overland right-of-way with a fixed path consisting of paired wooden rails that are elevated to support self-guided vehicles on flanged wooden wheels (wheels with projecting rims or collars). For more than two centuries an assortment of Lilliputian carriers used animals (horses, ponies, mules, and oxen), gravity, human traction, and occasionally wind to propel these cars to a nearby river, canal, or tidewater port. These bulky cargoes then moved wholly or in part by water transport to their final destinations.3

 

3 Knoxville, 1836

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3

RAILROAD CONVENTIONS

While not all railroad projects conceived during the Railway Age resulted from special conventions, many did. As late as the first decade of the twentieth century – the twilight era of railroad construction in America – promoters and enthusiasts, at times in large numbers, repeatedly gathered to discuss and organize schemes for steam railroads or for rural trolleys and electric interurbans. Yet as the nineteenth century progressed, the impact made by these railroad conventions diminished. Declared a contemporary: “Railroads were not likely to be prodigiously advanced by conventions.” But prior to the Civil War these assemblages were common and occasionally attracted hundreds of delegates and interested observers. Inevitably they were prolific in oratory and resolutions. “There have been railroad conventions without end,” editorialized the New York Herald in 1859, hardly an exaggerated statement.1

Conventions made sense. They offered forums to discuss the pros and cons of a specific railroad proposal. These gatherings, moreover, reflected the democratic spirit of the maturing republic. Participants were commonly elected by communities, counties, legislatures, or private organizations. They congregated in public places – meeting halls, churches, or other buildings – and in appropriate locations, usually the town or city on the projected route. These railroad conventions paralleled such contemporary assemblies as the nation’s first presidential nominating convention, organized by the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832, or the landmark woman’s rights convention that took place sixteen years later. Whether railroad or otherwise, conventions universally attracted the attention of the press and the general population. Once decisions had been reached, it was hoped that the enthusiasm generated could be translated into tangible results; organizers considered the “hoopla” factor important.

 

4 Surveys, Finances, and Construction

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4

SURVEYS

Essential to achieving the objective of the Knoxville Railroad Convention was locating the exact route for the Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Rail Road (LC&C). The geography of this vast proposed service area meant that decision makers needed to make choices, and often their choices became contentious. Robert Hayne and his supporters strongly favored the French Broad River valley for crossing the spine of the Southern Appalachians. Such a pathway would benefit South Carolinians, both Charlestonians and residents of other important communities in the Palmetto State. Routing options included possible service to Columbia, Greenville, Spartanburg, and York.1

This building strategy through the Midlands and Upstate South Carolina would permit several transportation-starved counties in western North Carolina to receive rail service. As for a route through the western section of the Tar Heel State, rumors flew. Some believed that the LC&C presence would be more extensive. The longer path, it was reported, would enter the state near Rutherfordton before turning generally westward over the crest of the mountains toward Asheville and the French Broad River. So many were hopeful.2

 

5 Crisis and Contraction

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5

PANIC OF 1837

Throughout the nineteenth century Americans lived through repeated financial panics. Serious economic dislocations began in 1819 and occurred again in 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith mused that the intervals between these major panics corresponded “roughly with the time it took people to forget the last disaster.” As the national economy matured, with expanding industrialization and urbanization, the potency of financial downswings increased. The final large-scale economic disruption of the century, triggered by the Wall Street panic of May 1893, spawned five troubled years and caused the worst depression in American history, exceeding the intensity of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the recent Great Recession of 2008.1

Although the relatively short-lived Panic of 1819 shook the business community, the Panic of 1837 affected more people and was more widely felt. It became, sadly for Americans, the “First Great Depression.” Earlier some fatalists had called the Great New York Fire in December 1835, which consumed the New York Stock Exchange and most buildings around Wall Street, an omen of impending economic doom. In their minds it was a sign from Providence. When disaster struck two years later, some Americans feared that depression would never lift, believing religious millennialists who claimed that end-times were near. Even a secular Philip Hone, former mayor of New York City and inveterate diary keeper, held similar thoughts. “Where will it end?” he asked. The answer he thought: “In ruin, revolution, perhaps civil war.” On April 1, 1837, the New York Herald described the growing economic calamity this way: “Wall street [sic], and its business neighborhood, from river to river, has been for a week in a terrible convulsion. The banks – the merchants – the brokers – the speculators, have been rolling onward together in the undistinguishable mass, down the stream of bankruptcy and ruin.”2

 

6 What Happened

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6

BLUE RIDGE RAILROAD

Building schemes during the Railway Age did not always work out as planned. The goals of bold, long-distance lines made by some promoters, including those who backed the Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Rail Road (LC&C), were not achieved, but other energetic proposals succeeded. The much publicized New York, Pittsburgh & Chicago Railway was one notable flop. This grandiose project, organized at the turn of the twentieth century, was intended to be a high-density, low-grade freight line that would compete directly with the busy main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad between Gotham and the Windy City. But construction never began. On the other hand, backers of the transcontinental Northern Pacific Railroad embarked on building that difficult route through tamarack swamps, desolate badlands, rugged mountains and mostly unpopulated country between Lake Superior and Puget Sound. “You can’t build a railroad from nowhere to nowhere,” quipped Cornelius Vanderbilt about the Northern Pacific. But that monumental struggle, begun in 1864 with aid from a federal land grant, ended successfully in 1883, and claimed to be the nation’s single greatest corporate undertaking of the era. Then there were those projects that started, sputtered along after completing some mileage, but never achieved their objectives. A good example involved the tireless efforts made by Gilded Age entrepreneur and visionary Arthur Stilwell, who sought to push his Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railway from Kansas City, Missouri, to Topolobampo, Sinaloa, Mexico. He succeeded in creating a much smaller road, connecting Wichita, Kansas, with Alpine, Texas, and completing modest sections in Mexico under the banner of the Kansas City, Mexico y Oriente Railway.1

 

7 What Might Have Happened

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7

A GREATER CHARLESTON

Suggesting what might have happened if something did not occur or occurred only partially – that is counterfactual or virtual history – is a risky business. Yet the question “What if?” can lead to insights. The case might be made that Charleston, which once enjoyed an envied status as a dominant Atlantic port, might have retained its position for decades, even permanently, had the Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Rail Road (LC&C) been completed. “There is every reason to believe, that CHARLESTON possesses some peculiar advantages, which will entitle her to command a larger share of this [Western] trade, than rightfully belongs, to any other city in the union” (italics in original), stated the 1835 pamphlet on The Proposed Rail-Road from Cincinnati to Charleston.SHE STANDS IN THE FRONT RANK, and [with the transmontane railroad] she will enter the list when she finds the course clear for Southern competition. AND SHE WILL WIN” (capitalization in original). Even in distant Boston, observers perceived that the LC&C was destined to make Charleston the American seaboard port. “To this end was Charleston to be forthwith converted into the great commercial rival of New York, and that the importing and exporting for the South and West was to be done no longer by the Northern cities.” Yet a consensus existed that Charleston would never again regain its once enormous wealth. In the late eighteenth century it was said that nine of America’s ten wealthiest men lived in the greater Charleston area. Still, Charlestonians expected to benefit from the LC&C, perhaps regaining for their hometown the status of the “Commercial Emporium of the South.” The feeling went that “the more prosperous my beloved city, the more prosperous the beloved I.”1

 

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