By Megan Beausoleil
It is the 7th of March, 1840. A cannon is fired, but instead of marking the beginning of a battle, its blast celebrates the opening of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. Church bells ring out, and residents from all across eastern North Carolina parade down Front Street in joy and excitement. The architects, officers, and workforces have much to be excited for, as they have just completed the longest railroad in the world at the time. It measures 161.5 miles in length, beginning in Wilmington, North Carolina and ending in Weldon, North Carolina, a mere ten miles to the Virginia border. Its first voyage embarked on March 7th and finished on March 9th.
The Wilmington and Weldon Railroad began its famous tenure in 1834, originally commissioned as the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad. Wilmington residents originally pushed for a train line to connect them to the capital city, but Raleigh business owners had little interest in the project. Still eager to get some sort of ground transportation to the rest of the state, the company instead set their destination in Weldon, NC, and owner Edward B. Dudley officially petitioned to change the company to the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. After the track’s completion, Wilmington became a hub of commerce by both water and land. The Wilmington and Weldon Railroad eventually linked up with the Virginia railroad lines, bringing the prosperity of the Roanoke Valley to the Port City.
The Wilmington and Weldon Railroad celebrates its 174th anniversary this March, containing almost two centuries worth of history in its tracks. The town of Goldsboro was founded in 1847 as a result of the railroad, forming the midpoint between Wilmington and Weldon. Furthermore, the railroad was part of several major Civil War battles, including the Siege of Petersburg in 1864. Because Wilmington was one of the major port cities that shuttled supplies to the Confederate troops in Virginia, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad was attacked numerous times by the Union forces in an attempt to cut off Robert E. Lee and his armies. These attacks have since been given their own titles in history: The Battle of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. They are split into two battles: The Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, and The Battle of Globe Tavern, the second of which resulted in the Union troops cutting off part of the railroad. This forced the Confederate armies to haul their supplies 30 miles by wagon to their stations in Virginia. The Union troops continued to push their way into Wilmington in 1865 and eventually overtook it, leading to the surrender by Robert E. Lee later that year.
After the end of the Civil War, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad had a fairly quiet history. It was leased to Wilmington, Columbia and Augusta Railroad Company in 1872, but was released back to its original owners after the company went bankrupt in 1878. Eventually, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad came under the ownership of the Atlantic Coast Line in 1900 where it survived until 1988, when a 26-mile stretch of the tracks from Wilmington to Castle Hayne was abandoned. The passenger station in Wilmington has since been destroyed, but one can still visit the Wilmington Railroad Museum, which was established in 2007 in the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad freight warehouse on the Cape Fear River. Though the much of this historic line has been abandoned, remodeled, or torn up, the spirit of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad lives on in the pages of history.