Looks like I’m becoming a full-fledged railfan, to my surprise. I enjoy spending my spare moments studying those tracks. I can’t really explain the attraction – it really makes no sense on the surface of it. It’s just fun wondering what it must have been like during the early days of rail.
It was a day spent working in my yard which ignited my current interest. I took a break from digging a trench to climb up the hill near the tracks. On my way up, I spotted the stump of a sawed-off telephone pole. Nearby was a glass insulator, which led me to discover a long length of telegraph wire.
Curiosity got to me. How old was that wire?
I started putting a picture together from the resources on the Internet. These tracks behind our house are the oldest railroad tracks in North Carolina. They belonged to the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad, which was commissioned in 1834 to build a line from Raleigh to Gaston, where other lines led to Petersburg and Norfolk.
Work was slow and sloppy, but progress was eventually made. The first stop northward was a station called Huntsville. Later this stop became known as Neuse Station. Neuse was located right outside my neighborhood. That makes this spot near my neighborhood the second-oldest depot in the state.
The rail line was completed in 1840, the same year as our State Capitol building. It brought prosperity to many surrounding towns. Cary and Apex likely wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the railroad. Wake Forest boomed when it stole a station from its Forestville neighbor to the south. Little towns like Norlina, Weldon and Hamlet thrived when they became important junctions in the line.
Railroads were prized targets during the Civil War, and the Raleigh and Gaston was no exception. Union troops were ordered to destroy bridges along the line and frequently did. They didn’t need much help, since the railroad had a shoddy maintenance record, from all accounts.
Eventually, the railroad joined with its Virginia cousin to become the Seaboard Air Line. The Seaboard soon stretched all across the south, connecting all the major cities. The famous Orange Blossom Special ran along these tracks from 1925 to 1952. In 1967, it merged with its eastern cousin, the Atlantic Coast Line, to become the Seaboard Coast Line. Three years later, Amtrak was formed, and the writing was on the wall for commercial passenger trains. Thirteen years later, at the height of railroad consolidation, the Seaboard merged with the Chessie system to form CSX. (I’m still trying to find out when the last passenger train traveled those tracks.)
Where the tracks once cut travel to Petersburg to a mere 15 hours, they no longer reach that far. CSX took up the tracks north of Norlina in the mid-80s, using the rest to service the woodchip businesses, quarries, and power plants in the northern part of the state. The typical cargo passing my house is gravel, with occasional tankers and lumber cars.
Those towns like Norlina whose fate were so closely tied to the rails have never recovered from the loss of those passenger trains. Neuse Station never made it. It exists now as the name of the local post office branch. The former depot building, a decrepit two-room shack, still stands on the depot property, its weatherbeaten sign announcing “Neuse” to the garbage trucks parked around it. Seeing it there this weekend made me wonder what might have been, had this little depot hung on.
The Neuse depot might see traffic once again, with the coming of the Triangle Transit Authority’s rail system. It is slated to become a commuter station, though its completion has been pushed back.
In addition to TTA, the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor will also reactivate the track for passenger use on its Charlotte to Washington route. Though its doubtful the High Speed Rail will be stopping at Neuse, it will be a boon for those little towns like Norlina which depended so much on the rails.