Piedmont & Northern Railway

Written By Will Schultz

The Piedmont & Northern (P&N) Railway fueled the growth of North Carolina’s textile industry. Running from Spartanburg to Greenwood in South Carolina and from Gastonia to Charlotte in North Carolina, the P&N shipped cotton, textiles, and other goods throughout the Piedmont region. But an ambitious plan to make the railroad a regional powerhouse was foiled by the federal government.

The railroad was the brainchild of William States Lee, vice-president of the Southern Power and Utilities Company. He imagined an electric railway connecting the Piedmont’s major cities. Construction began in 1910, and two years later Lee and other Southern Power executives became the first people to travel by train from Charlotte to Mount Holly. When it was completed in 1914, the railway featured 127 miles of track. Its trains were powered by electricity from Southern Power’s hydroelectric dams.

Textile mills appeared up and down the length of the Piedmont & Northern. Soon, the railroad boasted the slogan of “A Mill Per Mile.” This was no exaggeration. As of 1924, there were 135 cotton mills for 128 miles of railroad. The Piedmont & Northern carried more than textiles; cotton comprised only 20% of its freight tonnage. The railroad’s diverse cargo enabled it to earn more than $2 million in 1923.

James B. Duke, the power behind the Piedmont & Northern, wanted more. He wanted his railroad to stretch from Atlanta in the south to Winston-Salem in the north. The first step toward this goal came in 1927, when the railroad began building tracks between Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Gastonia, and between Charlotte and Durham. This move won the eager support of Governors Angus McLean of North Carolina and John Richards of South Carolina.

Rival railways protested, claiming that the Piedmont & Northern was becoming a monopoly. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) agreed. It demanded that the Piedmont & Northern halt construction. But James Duke was not put so easily dissuaded. Gambling that the Supreme Court would overrule the ICC, he ordered the railway to keep building. Duke lost his gamble. The Court ruled for the ICC in 1932, ending Duke’s dream of an Atlanta to Winston-Salem railroad.

As the state’s textile industry declined, so did the Piedmont & Northern. The railway abandoned its passenger service in 1951. After business continued to slide, the Piedmont & Northern merged with the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad (now CSX Transportation) in 1969. Its tracks remain, but the Piedmont & Northern is long gone.