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The Piedmont and Northern Railroad: A Brief Introduction
By: Bill Jeffers
May 4, 2009
On April 2, 1912, William States Lee, Vice President of the Southern Power and Utilities Company (known today as Duke Energy), Mayor C.A. Bland of Charlotte, the Charlotte Board of Alderman and other local notables participated in the inaugural run of the Piedmont and Northern Railroad. The dignitaries bought their tickets at the square on Trade and Tryon Streets in downtown Charlotte for the 35-minute ride to the railroad’s western North Carolina terminus in Gastonia. Along the route, excited local citizens came out to wave at the new train. At one stop, “the folks at Paw Creek surged to the edge of the platform of the Thrift Depot, named for the nearby Thrift Cotton Mill, when they heard the horn blaring down the track.” Truly, the arrival of this new electric railway caused quite a commotion in rural Mecklenburg and Gaston Counties. On its inaugural run though surely the only thoughts in many minds were the possibilities and benefits of what electricity could bring to the “New South.”
The Piedmont and Northern Railroad was the creation of William States Lee. The ambitious vice-president of the Southern Power and Utilities Company conceived of an “electrically powered interurban railway system linking the major cities of the Piedmont Carolinas.” Ultimately, it was hoped that the railroad would connect cities and towns along a proposed route stretching from Atlanta, Ga. to Washington D.C., in effect creating a metropolitan corridor anchored to the Piedmont and Northern line. With the approval of Southern Power and Utilities President James B. Duke, construction of the first two lines began in 1911. The first route would run 21 miles and link the North Carolina cities of Charlotte and Gastonia. The second stretch, spanning 98 miles, would run in South Carolina between Spartanburg and Greenwood. A final segment, uncompleted, would have connected the two lines, creating a regional interurban rail network. Since Southern Power and Utilities already maintained a virtual monopoly over electric interests in the region, the Piedmont and Northern Railroad was seen as a natural evolution of the company’s business. The railroad would also serve to promote economic growth in the piedmont, which was a primary goal of James B. Duke.
The Piedmont and Northern Railroad was never completed because of a legal challenge brought by Southern Railway to the Interstate Commerce Commission arguing that the electric railroad constituted an unfair business advantage. Southern’s argument found favor with the Interstate Commerce Commission, and construction on further sections of the Piedmont and Northern Railroad line was ordered stopped. As a result, Lee and Duke’s vision for a regional southern electric railroad that promoted economic growth was never realized. However, the two completed sections in North and South Carolina continued to remain popular and profitable for years, primarily due to the movement of freight. With the emergence of the automobile as a primary means of conveyance for people by the 1920’s, ridership on the passenger service side of the Piedmont and Northern Railroad began to decline. In 1951, due to this trend, passenger service was discontinued. The railroad continued to operate as a freight hauler for a time while converting to diesel engines. In 1969 the Piedmont and Northern Railroad Company merged with the Seaboard Coast Line, taking its name and formally ending operations almost 70 years after its founding, concluding a unique chapter in the history of southern piedmont industrialization.
The Piedmont and Northern, like any other railroad, operated on a time schedule. As a result, the company published timetables for their customers, which were simple folded cards or pamphlets. The Piedmont and Northern Railroad also published employee timetables, which were bigger than their passenger counterparts and included more pertinent information for the crew of the train to assist them in their day-to-day operation. These timetables are important material artifacts of the
Piedmont and Northern Railroad because they assist in contextualizing the railroads impact on the built environment of the piedmont region of North and South Carolina. Since part of my thesis will involve the documentation of the material artifacts relating to the line, digitalization of these timetables and any other related ephemera that can be digitized is a critical component to complete this goal. However, I would first like to contextualize timetables as they fit into the overall development of the railroad industry in America so as to highlight further the importance these printed material resources play in the history of railroads in the United States.
The Evolution of Railroad Timetables in America: Inception to Amtrak
While the European railroad owes its existence to the manufacturing processes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, the evolution of the railroad in America began as a result of agriculture and the need to transport those goods to market. Also, the railroad served to tame the American frontier. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch remarks in The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, “the railroad served to open up, for the first time, vast regions of previously unsettled wilderness.” This, in of itself, offered new opportunities for economic expansion during the Industrial Revolution.
The evolution of the railroad also shared a somewhat symbiotic relationship with the evolution in printing technology. The mechanization of the printing process made it possible to print more at reasonable prices therefore causing an increase in books, newspapers, etc. Not to be lost in this new phenomenon, railroad timetables emerged and fueled this evolution as well.
“Railroad timetables, as they are known today, originated in the 1830’s and were usually found in newspaper advertisements and posters. Called “broadsides” this type of design was inspired by the stagecoach and steamboat poster schedules already in existence. These early notices usually depicted a woodcut of a train and a condensed schedule of operations. “The very first was placed by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on May 20, 1830, in the Baltimore Patriot announcing the commencement of service over the first American railroad line beginning on May 24th.”
Previous Date” for to use an out of date timetable could spell disaster. Times printed in these schedules gave the crews of the trains they operated legal rights if obeyed properly.
Piedmont and Northern Railroad Employee Timetable (South Carolina Division): The natural evolution of the employee timetable
Image from the collection of Lane Adams
Prior to the Civil War, railways began modifying the design and format of these early timetables to show more information about the trains as well as including a map of the line for reference purposes. The realities of the Civil War, however, postponed further development. It would be at the end of the war and in the process of Reconstruction where the timetable began to come into its own. This was due to two factors. The first being the rapid advancement of railroad building across America and the second being the major advances in printing technology, which allowed for more printed material at much reduced cost. “The railways spawned the first large scale printing houses not connected with the newspaper business to supply them with stock certificates, tickets, business forms, and maps.” Print salesman convinced the railroads to invest in a new type of timetable that was produced through the printing process of wax engraving. Capable of creating complex and intricately designed timetables with illustrations in multiple colors, wax engraving “was the basis for the ‘golden age’ railroad timetables which lasted till the outbreak of the First World War. The combination of new printing techniques and the public’s new fondness for ornamentation in prose and picture gave rise to ornate timetables whose extravagant embellishments were never to be surpassed.”
collated sheets, this new format was, “folded and stapled along the center into an 8x9 booklet, and then folded again into a 4x9 dimension to fit and envelope or standardized display rack for stations and hotels.” The major improvements this format presented made information easier to locate and eliminated wear and tear in the folds.
“’UNITED STATES RAILROAD ADMINISTRATION, W.G. McAdoo, Director General of Railroads’ (or his successor Walker D. Hines) and included a quaint admonition to ‘Avoid Waste – Keep this Timetable.’” The USRA permitted some lines to retain their logo, in black and white, on the cover. All type fonts and travel information were identical to reinforce unity during the war. Finally, whereas private companies had often called themselves “Railroad,” “Railway,” or “Rail Road,” The USRA mandated that “Railroad” be the official standard.
operations with greater success, the size of the timetables they issued shrank considerably.” The new timetables were also of a poorer quality, usually just a four-page leaflet or a simple 4x9 card lacking any intricate design.
Whether passenger or employee timetables, these material artifacts are of great importance to public history. For example, a preservationist attempting to preserve and/or document the material remains (i.e. train stations) of a railroad line can use these operating schedules to, “tell about staffing, satellite facilities and other matter involving daily business. This information, coupled with oral histories, newspapers, photographs, maps, and government reports, can flesh out a building’s past.” Railroad timetables, while only a small component of the history of railroad industry, are an integral and important part of the story. As paper deteriorates over time it is important, when possible, to document these timetables digitally. Doing so provides a digital record that these artifacts, and by association the railroad they served, actually existed. Also, digitization can allow these documents to be presented on the Internet, making them available to anyone who may be interested in the history of a particular railroad. Ultimately, this process will serve to make the story of a particular railroad easier to tell for future generations by giving them access to specialized material that may otherwise be lost or forgotten. As the “tracks of time” progress, digitization of railroad ephemera can help the historian and the public they serve reconstruct the tracks that brought us to the present and shape our future, even though some have long fallen into obscurity.
 Anonymous, Piedmont and Northern Thrift Station, http://www.landmarkscommission.org/essays/thrift-stn.html, (Accessed February 4, 2008).
 Thomas T. Fetters and Peter W. Swanson, Jr., Piedmont and Northern: The Great Electric System of the South (San Marina, Calif.: Golden West Books, 1974), p. 11.
 Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, (Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 1986), p. 89.
 A.B. Magary, A Short History of American Railway Timetables, http://www.naotc.org/history/tt-history.htm (Accessed March 3, 2009).
 H. Roger Grant, The Railroad timetable: A Neglected Research Source, http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/spec-coll/Bai/grant.htm, (Accessed March 2, 2009).
 A.B. Magary.
 H. Roger Grant.
 A.B. Magary.
 H. Roger Grant. Ibid.