Transportation Improvements Open the Blue Ridge to Piedmont Commerce

(Note: See “Crossing the River: The Catawba Valley and the Appalachians [1747 – 1849]” for the history leading to this account)

By Michael Barrick

Just roughly 100 years after the Catawba Valley was permanently settled by European settlers, numerous factors contributed to open the mountain markets of the southern Appalachians to the Piedmont of North Carolina and beyond. These factors also permanently linked the late-developing town of Hickory to the mountain communities of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the process, Hickory, though it was at first a small town in a county where political power was centered 10 miles to the southeast in the Catawba County seat of Newton, quickly became the economic hub of the Catawba Valley.

Hickory’s development occurred because its founders did not allow the Catawba River to serve as an obstacle to growth, and instead saw it as an opportunity to energize the region’s economy by improving transportation to the mountain markets and to the more populated cities to the south and east. Consequently, it placed itself squarely between the mountain forests, farmers, artisans and craftsmen and the rapidly growing cities of the Piedmont.

The Horseford Bridge
The Horseford Bridge, built by private investors in 1849, was the vital link that opened up Hickory to the bountiful crops of the mountain farmers. Spanning the Catawba River into Caldwell County, it helped spur Hickory’s growth, especially after the railroad arrived about 10 years later. Between the bridge and the rail lines, farmers could now get their crops to markets previously unavailable. Photo courtesy of Catawba County Historical Association Archives 

First there were fords, followed by ferries. Then bridges crisscrossed the valley’s many streams, making way for local trade. The first significant improvement occurred in 1849, when private investors built the Horseford Bridge, connecting Hickory to Caldwell County. The next significant development was the arrival of the railroad. In a debate about whether it would be routed through Hickory or Newton, a compromise was made in which both communities were included; Hickory would be on the main line and Newton connected by a spur. Other spur lines were added to connect with Maiden and points south. It was the development of these vital transportation links that helped make Hickory a commercial gathering place. The early, modest village was to quickly grow beyond the few blocks surrounding the train depot. Soon, hotels were built near the depot for the ever-increasing number of visitors. Local residents such as Abel A. Shuford moved from the countryside to the town, bringing with them their leadership, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The development of the lumber industry, the establishment of Piedmont Wagon Company and the robust trade at Union Square all signaled a community poised for regional influence. The arrival of electricity, the founding of local banks, and a strong emphasis on education helped usher in an era of growth and optimism as the 19th century came to a close.

None of this would have been possible had the city not been connected to the Blue Ridge Mountain communities. The region’s robust agrarian economy had sustained it for 100 years and had created strong communities. Stores and shops opened, as merchants were needed to provide equipment and supplies for home and farm. While Newton, Maiden and other towns throughout the valley had numerous merchants and craftsmen, the small community known then as Hickory Tavern would be among the last towns in the county to be officially established. However, the building of the bridge and the arrival of the railroad helped to expedite its standing. Although the arrival of the railroad around 1860 was undeniably significant – connecting Hickory with markets to the south, east and west – the essential first step in the establishment of Hickory as a vital market place was the building of the Horseford Bridge. “Early on, settlers in the northern mountains pushed a path down to the river at what became known as ‘the horseford,’ named for the fact that horses could make it over, but wagons had a rough time” (Freeze 265). For years, valley residents had to overcome the challenges that came with the streams that created their rich farmland. “That persons of the section of Catawba desired to cross streams is evidenced by the astounding number of ferries which operated shortly after the county became a governmental unit, some of them for financial gain. Between 1850 and 1900, it is estimated that 20 ferries and toll bridges were at the disposal of the citizenry. Numerous fords were also used” (Preslar 162). Dozens of crossings were available on the Catawba, the South Fork had five crossings, Henrys Fork river had numerous and Jacobs Fork had at least two.

Still, a direct route to Hickory was desired. For the region to fulfill its potential, the power of the river had to be overcome, even harnessed. The building of the bridge accomplished this. “A private company erected the bridge as a toll operation, knowing that the railroad then being built from Charlotte to Rutherfordton would encourage mountain farmers to head south across the county with their produce and wares” (Freeze, 268). Hickory had benefited from its proximity to Newton and other Catawba County towns, yet, “Early Hickory’s prosperity rested largely upon the trade from outside Catawba. Customers consisted mainly of ‘the mountain wagon trade.’ The mountaineers began to come down in numbers in late summer, and in the early years they would park their wagons on the public square between the depot and the stores. Nightly the place was lit by the camp fires and animated by the laughter and talk of mountain folk” (Freeze 278).”

Hickory was now a marketplace for produce, vegetables, wheat and other crops. Lumber, too, was being harvested. The bridge brought the farmers; the railroad provided access to customers. Hickory was now “…emerging along the tracks” (Freeze 171).

Hickory did far more than emerge. It boomed. Indeed, “The inimitable ‘great iron horse,’ which made its appearance in North Carolina in the early 1840s…is credited with developing Catawba county more effectively than any other transportation facility and determining that Hickory is the area’s principal city” (Preslar 164). In 1860, the Western North Carolina Railroad (WNCR), and later the Carolina and Northwestern RR, “…changed Catawba as much as did the Civil War. The impact of trains during the postwar decades fostered the growth of towns in an overwhelmingly rural county. Catawba was still primarily a farming area by 1900, but the towns – Newton and Hickory in particular – exerted a cultural and commercial power that gave them sway over the county’s life. The concentration of schools, stores, and shops around the railroad stations set the stage for the later development of industry and an urban culture” (Freeze 213).

Prominent families moved from the countryside to the town, helping lead its development. Meanwhile, others remained on the farms, recognizing that the rail lines opened their crops to markets heretofore beyond their reach. Farmers were not all that benefited from Hickory’s emergence. In time, industry would build up, and education and the arts would thrive as well.

Upon arrival of the railroad, a post office was opened for “Hickory Tavern,” the original name of Hickory. The same year that the city officially adopted its new name (1889), the first street lights became operational in the city. Two years later, what is today Lenoir-Rhyne University opened its doors as Lenoir College. Shortly after the turn of the century, construction had begun on public works and sewer facilities. The first local telephone exchange was housed in Newton in 1900, over A. A. Shuford’s bank in Newton, and by 1908, a street numbering plan was implemented. From 1860 to 1900, the railroad continued to grow. The railroad not only strengthened Hickory, it set it up as a regional hub. During the Civil War, the Hickory depot had served as a commissary for the Confederacy. After the war, Catawba, Claremont, Conover, Maiden and Newton had grown with the arrival of the rails. Though Newton was the county seat and at the geographical center of the county, Hickory was clearly emerging as the economic leader in the Catawba Valley. In fact, the Hall Brothers, the leading Hickory retail and wholesale merchants at the end of the 19th Century, enjoyed more business than the top five Newton competitors (Freeze 235).

Yet, Hickory was still very agrarian and charming. “Early Hickory was so small…that when the train blew its whistle twice daily, most activity stopped, and someone from every household gathered at Shuford’s store, where Dolph, the postmaster, called out the names of those receiving letters. So intimate was the community that young blades would ring the depot bell well into the night after a wedding, just to remind the couple folks were thinking about them” (Freeze 270).

Within a few years after the Civil War, Hickory was attracting people from throughout the state and region. “Through the mix of farmers and merchants Hickory suddenly became the boom town of western North Carolina. ‘The growth of Hickory is astonishing,’ Statesville newspaper editor E.B. Drake told his readers in January 1872. ‘New houses are going up on all directions. Business is flourishing’” (Freeze 271).

Indeed, at about this same time, Dr. Richard Baker began practicing medicine in Hickory, which during this time also included the opening of a drug store. He proudly placed a “card” – or advertisement – in the local newspaper announcing his practice. Payment commonly consisted of fruits and vegetables, and Dr. Baker, known for his charitable deeds, would have certainly bartered or performed care without payment.

An event in the history of the Horseford Bridge also signaled a determination by Hickory’s leadership to recognize they had a vital role to play in the town’s growth. Within a generation of being built, its value was such that the town acquired it in the 1880s, “…when the heavy traffic on the structure led to the town’s decision to buy it and allow free crossing” (Freeze 268).

Piedmont Wagon
The Piedmont Wagon Company was Hickory’s first major industry and was a key to the town’s growth from 1880 to the 1920s. Prior to the establishment of the Piedmont Wagon Company, small wagon and blacksmith shops dotted Catawba County. Work in these shops, usually located at crossroads, was all done by hand, whereas much of the factory’s work was done with the aid of machines. George C. Bonniwell (1837-1912) is generally credited with establishing the company. An architect, engineer, and builder, Bonniwell came to North Carolina from Philadelphia in 1878. He found a business partner in the person of Andrew L. Ramseur, the operator of an iron forge, gristmill, and sawmill on the Catawba River. The original site of the factory was located at the intersection of the Western North Carolina Railroad and the Chester Lenoir Narrow Gauge Railroad. The present-day building is located on a slight knoll in the angle formed by the two sects of railroad tracks. The location was thus ideal for the growth of the business. As the company prospered, its physical plant, spread over the thirteen acres, increased in size. … At its height the primary markets for Piedmont’s products were eleven southeastern states, extending from Virginia to Texas. Output increased to one thousand wagons per month. This was from a business which originally produced one wagon per week.
Source: City of Hickory, N.C.

Another important development in Hickory’s emergence was the establishment of the Piedmont Wagon Company. Founded about 1878, it helped launch manufacturing in Hickory, helped expand its center westward, and “…made Hickory nationally famous for decades” (Freeze 280). Located about a mile west of the depot, it sat strategically at the junction of the rail lines. Its proximity to town helped ensure its access to mountain forests and growing urban markets; its location helped guarantee that it had access to timber to the north and west. “Soon after the establishment of the wagon yards, other industry began to be located at the western end of town. Most firms concentrated on products using the raw material that made Hickory tout itself as ‘the woodman’s mecca’” (Freeze 283).

In short, Hickory went from an ante-bellum village to a prototypical town of the Gilded Age, primarily because of the railroad; early maps and photos of the town bare this out, as the initial activity and development were around the train depot.

Numerous fires in each decade following the Civil War shaped the architecture and impacted the fortunes of numerous merchants. Several businesses – most famously hotels – as well as churches and homes were destroyed by fire. This led to the development of a fire brigade, the precursor to the Hickory Fire Department, which by the first decades of the 20th century was being lauded as one of the best in the nation. Also, most destroyed buildings were eventually replaced by brick structures, many of which still stand today.

Hickory was a segregated town as were all Southern towns during this period. Yet, there apparently remained a sense of community. “All residents of early Hickory were, in one way or another, neighbors. Rich and poor alike, and sometimes black and white, lived within sight of one another” (Freeze 290). It also experienced growing pains. Livestock roamed the streets when farmers were in town waiting for the train. In addition, “Hickory was a rowdy town, with taverns freely dispensing alcohol and civil order sometimes barely enforceable by the local police. As one resident stated it, ‘Hickory was a veritable frontier village. The plains of the wooly West did not surpass it in its will orgies of lawlessness’” (Freeze 293).

Conversely, faith also played a role in the town’s development with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists establishing churches after the first congregation – that of Corinth Reformed Church – had organized in 1869. Indeed, Dr. Baker and his wife played significant roles in the establishment of the town’s first Episcopalian parish.

There was also a determination to provide rigorous educational opportunities, recognizing the value of common (now public) schools as well as higher education to a community’s economic and cultural growth. Consequently, “By 1892, Hickory had become one of the gems of the New South. The Opera House joined with the Hickory Inn and the new bank to give the community an air of Victorian prosperity and sophistication. In 1889 Hickory was officially chartered a city. …It also chartered an electric light system. The street in front of stores on the public square was about to become Park Place, and in 1892 the area would take the name Union Square” (Freeze 307).

The seemingly endless supply of timber led to a robust furniture industry, including sawmills and factories. Investment by local entrepreneurs and even New York capitalists placed Hickory as a leader in the industry as the 20th century dawned. “By the early 1900s Hickory had developed several (furniture) plants, the first being Hickory Furniture Company in 1901. …By the eve of the first World War furniture had become the town’s leading employer” (Freeze 364). The growing economy of the region and the entire South, with farmers experiencing solid, steady prices, helped Piedmont Wagon enjoy some of its most prosperous times. By 1880, the population was 1,400 and Hickory was the busiest town between Asheville and Salisbury. Textiles and hosiery mills were opening regularly; several plants would open in the early 1900s.

Suburbs also began to develop. Windy City (now Viewmont) was to the north, Brookford to the south, Highland to the east, and Longview and West Hickory to the west. Eventually, all but Brookford and Longview would be absorbed by Hickory. Still, the depot area remained the town’s focal point. Union Square was growing, funded largely by industrialist and philanthropist A.A. Shuford. Indeed, the Shufords were playing an increasingly active role in the community. “The Shuford enterprises embraced furniture, gloves, hosiery, textiles and banking. And there was Shuford time, energy and money, too for establishment of schools, churches and other civic institutions” (Our State 27).

The town and world was rapidly changing, and the next generation was charged with leading Hickory into the uncertain future of the fast-paced 20th century. City elder A.A. Shuford died in 1912 in the hospital founded by his nephew, Dr. Jacob Shuford. Just a day previous, A.A. Shuford’s brother and Dr. Shuford’s father, John, also died at the hospital. Earlier, in 1906, Dr. Baker died – five years before the hospital that would honor his life’s work would open.

Though passing on, the influence of the town’s founding generation was far from over. The foundations they had laid through a lifetime of service following the decades of the Civil War were solid. The progress under them was impressive. The example they set was exemplary. In short, all that was needed to support a modern community – infrastructure, population, a sense of community, a strong economy, vital social and educational institutions and a new generation ready to embrace their season of opportunity – was in place. Hickory had become a gathering place. A front page of the local newspaper from 1911 included the train schedules. Folks could get to and from Hickory from places like Gastonia and Lincolnton in the Piedmont and Collettsville, Mortimer and Edgemont in the mountains. Just roughly 60 years after the Horseford Bridge was built, and 50 years after the railroad arrived, Hickory had become the regional hub for the Catawba Valley, because its leaders recognized the importance of its mountain neighbors.

Works Cited
Gary R. Freeze, The Catawbans: Crafters of a North Carolina County (Newton, N.C.: Catawba County Historical Association, 1995).
Charles J. Preslar, Jr., editor, A History of Catawba County (Salisbury, N.C.: Rowan Printing Company, 1954).
The State magazine, April 18, 1959.

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