On Saturday, March 21, 1840, a jubilant crowd gathered at a new depot near Halifax and North Streets in Raleigh to greet a modern marvel and perhaps the very salvation of a capital in jeopardy; a locomotive called “The Tornado”. Its top speed was 15 mph, the cab where the engineer fed pine kindling into the fire was open, hot embers rushed out and started small brush fires and burned holes in the clothes of passengers, and the people of Raleigh were wild for it.
By 1840, Raleigh’s position as the capital of North Carolina had spent half a century on shaky ground. The city, one of a very few in the U.S. to be planned and built as a capital, was often challenged by residents in well-established cities on navigable rivers like Fayetteville, Hillsborough and New Bern. Raleigh’s nearest river, the Neuse, could only receive freight as far north as Smithfield.
Then a disaster in 1831 put Raleigh’s capital status in peril. A careless repair worker started a fire that consumed the North Carolina State House, the physical seat of state government and Raleigh’s raison d’être. Antoino Canova’s marble statue of George Washington that the General Assembly commissioned in 1816, as well as the state’s records and library were destroyed. The voices of capital relocation rose up, and large numbers of residents left Raleigh and Wake County for opportunities in other parts of the state.
But all was not lost, and during the 1832 legislative session, a bill was passed to rebuild the State House in Raleigh on Union Square. Not only would the new State House be the crown jewel of the capital, it would be built using the very latest in transportation technology: a railroad.
Raleigh’s experimental railroad led from the rock quarry to Union Square, and brought cut stone over wooden rails on boxcars pulled by horses or mules. The city’s residents could catch a ride for 25 cents.
The experimental railroad proved to be an enormous success, both financially and in popularity. Numerous railroad companies emerged in the following years with the hopes of getting a real locomotive to the capital, even though many believed it would be impossible to build a rail line over hilly country. Considering that most rail lines ran along the flat land next to rivers, they may have been right.
But the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad Company, headed by president George W. Mordecai, found the formula for success. Using slave labor, Raleigh and Gaston laid tracks beginning at an established line in Weldon on the Roanoke River. They charged other rail companies to use their tracks, thereby funding further construction. Bit by bit and year by year, the railroad crept closer to the capital.
In a final push, Raleigh and Gaston purchased the latest passenger cars, several new freight cars, and four brand new locomotive engines in 1839. Instead of relying on English engines, D.J. Burr and Company in Richmond, Virginia, were commissioned to build the Tornado, the Whirlwind, the Spitfire, and the Volcano.
But before they could finish, the planned line had to be diverted around Warrenton, where residents literally chased surveyors away with loaded rifles. Another obstacle arose when the ship carrying the last iron rails from England ran aground, then a back-up shipment from Philadelphia froze in port near Norfolk. Not to be stopped there, Raleigh and Gaston proceeded off the rails and the Tornado rolled into Raleigh right on the wood.
For many, the arrival of the railroad meant that Raleigh’s position as the capital of North Carolina was secure, and it would be a modern and prosperous capital at that. A reporter on the scene from the Raleigh Register wrote:
“We now have occular demonstration of that, which no man would have believed, thirty years ago, to be within the compass of human power.”
For some, that reporter may very well have been referring to Raleigh’s hold on the title of North Carolina’s capital.