|The Building Of Independence
By Dr. Dan L. Morrill
Independence Boulevard tore this community apart. Beneath
the deafening din of car horns and truck exhausts I can still hear the
anguished cries of the hundreds of Chantilly,
Elizabeth, and Piedmont Park residents who gathered at Midwood
School on Central Avenue on September 8, 1946. These were desperate
people who had just learned that Mayor Herbert Baxter and the City
Council wanted to use $200,000 of local bond money to help build a
massive "cross-town boulevard" up Westmoreland Avenue, down High Street,
and across the Sunnyside Rose Garden, through
Independence Park and along Fox Street past the Douglas and Sing
Cherry and the
Thompson Orphanage pasture, up Stonewall Street and down Brevard
Street to end at Morehead Street.
|Herbert Baxter, a New Englander,
first came to Charlotte as an Army trainee at Camp Greene during
World War I. He returned to Charlotte after the war and became a
member of City Council and later mayor.
The protestors called it a "foolish scheme" that could
"throttle traffic between downtown and the eastern residential
districts." One irate resident suggested that the route had been chosen
because it would increase the value of the property that Ben Douglas,
District Highway Commissioner and former Mayor, owned at what is now the
intersection of Independence Boulevard and Elizabeth Avenue. "In fact,
it is strange," the irate citizen proclaimed, "how the highway seems to
seek out the schools, the stadium, one of the few parks we have, the
Rose Garden and other such places to bring its roaring buses and streams
of cars along throughout the day and night." "Virtually everybody who
lives in the eastern part of the city will have to cross its snake-like
meandering," the group warned.
|Mayor Ben Douglas was a major
player in Charlotte in the 1930s and 1940s. He was District Highway
Commissioner when Independence Blvd. was built.
Lucille K. Tyson, an elderly lady, lived at 829 South
Brevard Street, right in the path of the proposed "cross-town
boulevard." "My thoughts may not mean so much, but I feel pretty blue
and washed up today," she lamented in a letter to the Charlotte
Observer on March 13, 1947. "Many times I've looked out to see
surveyors all around the place, our property staked off. Again, an
official sitting in a parked car observing and figuring."
Ms. Tyson felt powerless, maybe afraid, as she saw her
whole world crashing down around her and saw no way out of her dilemma.
"We work and work to enjoy a few happy moments in our old years, knowing
we do not have many more to go. Here comes a new idea. A Super
Highway! There! We have to pick up and go," she decried. "Certainly,
I feel let down about having to lose a home. It is something to think
about when it hits you." I do think about Lucille Tyson every time I
drive down Independence Boulevard.
"Somebody's toes are bound to be stepped on." That's how
Councilman John P. White, the stern, cigar-smoking, 67-year-old
production manager and mechanical superintendent of the Charlotte
Observer responded to the protestors of the proposed "cross-town
boulevard." A native of Alabama, White lived on Grandin Road in the
Wesley Heights neighborhood off West Trade Street. Like the majority of
Charlotte businessmen of that era, he was caught up in the euphoria and
optimism that gripped the country right after World War Two.
|City Councilman John P. White put
together the coalition that approved the route of Independence Blvd.
Exciting things were happening all over Charlotte. The
real estate market was booming, as developers like C. D. Spangler and
John Crosland labored feverishly to provide housing for the hordes of
veterans who were marrying and beginning their families. Brides
appeared in regal, white gowns on page after page of the Sunday
newspaper, serenely ready to partake of the wonders of the newest
kitchen paraphernalia. Dishwashers. Electric can openers. WBT was
about to put its FM station on the air. Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman
were starring in "The Bells of St. Mary's" at the
Carolina Theater. In August, 1946, Liggett Drugstore opened its
lavish, modernistic drugstore on the northeastern corner of the Square,
where the Bank of America headquarters are now located.
|This picture looking from the Square
down East Trade St. shows the kind of congestion that existed on
Uptown streets. A fellow is sitting at a piano on the platform
suspended from the crane as a promotion for the March of Dimes.
That's Liggett Drugstore on the corner.
This was not a time for sentimentality or restraint. "You
only look back for reasons to move ahead, and by golly nobody can say
that we lacked ideas," Mayor Baxter told journalist Kays Gary in 1964.
A handsome and personable Bostonian, Herbert Baxter came to Charlotte
during World War One to train at Camp Greene, settled here, prospered in
the lumber business, and moved to a fine home on Queens Road. "Because
he was so much a doer by nature," the Charlotte Observer
reported, "he was never a precise planner, never a man to wait to weigh
every possible detail that might go wrong."
Ben Douglas was cut from the same bolt of cloth. A native
of Iredell County, Douglas moved to Charlotte from Gastonia in the
mid-1920s and established a funeral home at the corner of Fox Street and
Elizabeth Avenue, now Independence and Elizabeth. His wife has vivid
memories of the Douglas and Sing Mortuary, especially of the green
awning that ran from the front door to the curb. A tireless and adroit
politician, Douglas was Mayor from 1935 until 1941, and earned the
reputation of being the "Builder of Modern Day Charlotte." Douglas
loved the drama and passion of the political arena, and he devoted his
enormous energies and talents to leading the people into what he
regarded as a bright and prosperous future. Born in the 1890s, he
reached adulthood during the "roaring twenties," when it seemed that
everybody was making piles of money in the stock market. Then came the
crippling Depression of the 1930s. Douglas saw himself as a
cheerleader, as an urban booster who would rally the people of Charlotte
and give them hope.
The real brain behind the building of Independence
Boulevard was James B. Marshall. He was a brilliant engineer who had
served as Mayor Ben Douglas's City Manager. Born in Anderson, S.C. in
the early 1890s, Marshall graduated from the College of Charleston and
settled in Charlotte in the 1920s. He left City government in 1941 and
joined J. N. Pease as an engineer and contact man with City Hall.
In 1946, the Charlotte Planning Board hired Marshall as a
consultant to prepare a master plan for Charlotte's streets. Several
month earlier, the North Carolina Highway Department had conducted a
comprehensive survey of local traffic trends and had determined that
Charlotte needed "cross-town boulevards" to relieve congestion on
uptown streets. The prospect of grand and majestic expressways was
music to the ears of men like Mayor Baxter and District Highway
The first mention of what was to become Independence
Boulevard occurred in the Charlotte Observer on May 7, 1946. C.
W. Gilchrist, Chairman of the City Planning Board, announced that Jim
Marshall had completed a street plan that included an expressway from
Graham Street eastward along Stonewall to Sugar Creek, where it forked,
one arm leading to the Monroe and Albemarle highways, and another
connecting with Queens Road. On June 4th, City Council Adopted
Marshall's master scheme, even though the exact route of the cross-town
boulevard was still undecided.
The issue did not surface again until September 1946, when
word leaked out that the expressway would split the Chantilly,
Elizabeth, and Piedmont Park neighborhoods. A throng of infuriated
citizens packed the City Council meeting on September 10th, and their
spokesman, attorney Frank K. Sims, Jr., accused the City of being
secretive and manipulative. They had good reason to be mad. The group
had not even seen a map of the proposed route.
Mayor Baxter assured the neighborhood leaders that the
location of the expressway was still up in the air; he directed City
Manager Henry A. Yancey to release maps of the cross-town boulevard; and
he promised the protestors that they would have ample time to express
On October 8, 1946, the City Council gathered for an
informal dinner at the Myers Park County Club, where Mayor Baxter was
president. In those days it was customary for the Councilmen to decide
issues in private and then to merge like the College of Cardinals and
cast their pre-determined votes. Imagine what the scene must have been
like. There in the midst of
Myers Park, with fine china, cut crystal, and sumptuous food on the
table, the representatives of the people endorsed the route through
Chantilly, Elizabeth, and Piedmont Park.
On October 21, 1946, the outraged resident of the affected
neighborhoods descended upon City Hall for a public hearing. The
atmosphere was tense and electric. "Isn't it a little absurd," Frank
Sims remarked, "to build a highway that winds and twists and turns
across a park and baseball diamond and over a rose garden and through a
thickly populated residential section just to reach Ben Douglas's
Mayor Baxter and the Councilmen back down in the face of
this fierce public opposition. They instructed Jim Marshall and Henry
Yancey to come up with alternative routes for the expressway.
At 2:00 p.m. on November 12, 1946, the City Council toured
eastern Charlotte to examine three prospective rights-of-way. One was
the original route up Westmoreland Avenue and through Independence Park,
from which the cross-town boulevard eventually took its name. A second
used Westmoreland but turned left on Hawthorne Lane to Fourth Street and
continued across Sugar Creek to Stonewall. The third spared Chantilly,
Elizabeth, Piedmont Park, the Sunnyside Rose Garden, and Independence
Park by entering the city along Monroe Road, swinging left past the
railroad overpass to connect with Randolph Road, continuing to the
intersection of Queens Road and Fourth Street, then moving through the
Cherry neighborhood to Morehead Street, and proceeding along Morehead to
City Council approved the third route by a vote of 5 to 1
on November 25, 1946. Ponder what that would have meant for the
Crescent Heights neighborhoods and the Mint Museum. But this route
was never built, because the Federal government, the principal financier
of the project, rejected it outright as unsuitable for an expressway.
On December 5, 1946, the Councilmen took up the issue again. For a
while it looked like Charlotte would never decide the issue of where to
build Independence Boulevard. The members of City Council seemed to be
hopelessly divided, two favoring the original route, two supporting
Hawthorne Lane, and two opposing the road regardless of its route.
City Council John P. White saved the day. He persuaded
Ross Puette and Henry Newson to abandon Hawthorne Lane and back the
original route. "By jingo, at one point there, I thought I was going to
have to switch to Hawthorne Lane myself," White laughed. Such were the
fickle ways of politics in those days.
The battle was not over. City Council approved the
contract with the Federal government on March 11, 1947, but the
opponents threatened to sue the City for misuse of local bond money.
The next City Council had to reaffirm its support for the project in
June 1947. The momentum to build the cross-town boulevard was
irreversible. And we all live with the consequences -- good and bad.