The Beginnings of Burlington, NC
The Town of Company Shops established in 1859
image: Library of Congress
Alamance County was created when Orange County was partitioned in 1849.
The need of the North Carolina Railroad in the 1850s to locate land where they could build, repair and do maintenance on its track was the genesis of Burlington, North Carolina. The company selected a piece of land slightly west of present-day Graham. On January 29, 1856, the last spikes were driven into the final tie of the North Carolina Railroad project, uniting the cities of Goldsboro and Charlotte by rail. The next day, the first locomotive passed along the new route. When the iron horse arrived in Alamance County, locals referred to it as "the eighth wonder of the world".
image: NCDCR Digital Collections
Not long after this historic opening, the railroad realized a pressing need for repair shops. With Alamance County's position along the new line, it became the logical choice for the shops' location. After several debates concerning where the shops would be located, Gen. Benjamin Trollinger, a progressive Alamance County manufacturer, made an offer that settled the matter. Gen. Trollinger owned land just northwest of Graham, and he convinced several other prominent citizens owning adjacent lots to join him and sell their property to the railroad. By 1859, construction of the shops began. Seemingly overnight, a town was born. A church, bank, hotel and restaurant sprang up. "Company Shops", as the town became known, was also chosen as the railroad's headquarters. By the time the shops were completed, the village had grown to twenty-seven buildings. Thirty-nine white men, twenty Negro slaves and two free Negroes were employed in or around the shops. Sale of town lots soon started, but not surprisingly, the sale of lots was slow until after the Civil War. By 1864, Company Shops numbered about 300 persons.
image: State Archives of North Carolina
After twenty-five years of operations, the shops closed along with most of the area's railroad facilities. In 1886, the North Carolina Railroad Company transferred its operations to Spencer, North Carolina. The railroad offices and shops at Company Shops were closed. With the railroad shops no longer operating there, the citizens of Company Shops decided a new name was needed. Company Shops was reborn as Burlington on February 14, 1893. The city of Burlington was incorporated, and a charter was issued by the State Legislature.
image: The Burlington Times-News
Around the turn of the century, the industrial era began, and Alamance County made a rich contribution to the industrial advancement of the country. Gen. Trollinger and E.M. Holt established small textile operations along the Haw River and Great Alamance Creek. In 1908, E.M. Holt built the first cotton mill in the South. From the establishment of this single factory, Alamance County grew to eventually operate 30 cotton mills and 10 to 15 yarn manufacturing plants employing 15,000 people. Eventually, the early textile venture of E.M. Holt became known all over the world as Burlington Industries, and is now headquartered in nearby Greensboro. Throughout this period, Burlington became a prosperous and vibrant little city filled with schools, churches, newspapers, telegraph and telephone lines, roads and a streetcar line—all in keeping with the latest "modern progress" of the times.
Though textiles continued to dominate the local economy well into the 1970s, the people of Burlington knew they could not survive with only one industry. The country's involvement in World War II brought important local economic changes. In 1942, the federal government purchased and leased a 22-acre site to Fairchild Aircraft Corporation for the construction of test aircraft. After two years of production, the site was leased to Firestone Tire Company for the Army's tank rebuilding program. At the close of the war, the federal government chose not to leave, but continued to utilize the property for government contract business. This decision would bring Western Electric to town along with new employees from around the country. Their contracts ensured Burlington's participation during the Cold War manufacturing and testing of emerging defense technologies. Four decades later (1991), however, the doors to Western Electric (then Lucent Technologies) were locked, and another chapter of Burlington’s history was over.
During this century-and-a-half of economic change, Burlington grew, adapted and prospered. Originally the center of commerce for Company Shops, the downtown area still serves as the heart of today's community with financial services, government services, an expanded library, small shops, eateries and a restored theater. Downtown has also returned to its status as a major employment center, becoming the home to Laboratory Corporation of America, one of the world's largest biomedical testing firms and Burlington/Alamance County's largest employer.
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Through preservation, education, and involvement, Preservation Burlington seeks to protect and celebrate the architectural and historical heritage of Burlington and the surrounding area. Historic preservation and adaptive re-use contributes to stronger, safer neighborhoods, economic development, aesthetic beauty, and community pride. By fostering within the community an appreciation of our historic properties, we aim to promote interest in, and good stewardship of our local historic treasures.
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