Raleigh’s 1840 election riot

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A dispute over building a new town hall and market on Hargett Street led to a riot in downtown Raleigh.

On January 20, 1840, the city of Raleigh held its annual municipal elections. The “intendent of police,” or mayor as the job was called by the 1850s, was the popular founder of the Raleigh Register newspaper, Joseph Gales, Sr.

Gales arrived in Raleigh in 1799 and quickly set up a printing press, bookstore and newspaper. He had already served as intendant of police from the years 1819-1825, and again from 1827-1833. The 1840 election was Gales’ final term, and he died just a year later at 80.

The election itself did not go through without a hitch, however. A year before, in 1839, the city commissioners had selected and purchased a site for the new Market House and Town Hall.

There had never been a town hall, and most public meetings took place in the Wake County Courthouse. The first Market House was an octagonal, wooden building, plopped in the intersection of Fayetteville and Hargett streets. It was destroyed during a fire in the early 1830s, when firemen dynamited the structure to stop the blaze from spreading (it didn’t work).

As the epicenter of commerce for the entire county, the Market House also had the distinction of having a great number of saloons surrounding it. Raleighites called the area “Grog Alley”.

The election of January 20, 1840, saw the seating of five commissioners who supported the 1839 decision for a new Market House and Town Hall, and only two commissioners who wanted to keep using the County Courthouse.

The celebrate their victory, a noisy mob armed with blazing torches marched into Grog Alley. Saloon owners and patrons disturbed by the fracas stepped outside to see what all the noise was about. Someone threw a rock. Chaos ensued. Rioters pelted each other with bricks and rocks, and a number of people were struck down.

Ultimately, the combined Town Hall and Market House was built, as planned, on the block of Hargett Street between Fayetteville and Wilmington streets. Over time, most folks in Raleigh came to accept and even admire the new building, but only until 1868, when it was destroyed in a fire.

It is possible that the violence was started by a young boy, who some sixty-four years later confessed throwing the first rock. Those who had witnessed the riot and enjoyed retelling the chaotic scene would ask, “Who struck Billy Patterson?” Billy was a freedman and apparently a well-liked local, who had been struck at the riot.

Within the past few years a number of saloons (or “bars” as we call them these days) have popped up in the former Grog Alley area. Though my visits to popular watering holes around Hargett Street are somewhat infrequent, I certainly have seen nothing of a riot, and hope the new Grog Alley will remain relatively peaceful.

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