Table of Contents February 2014
North Carolina is one of two states that own a railroad. But its value has raised the question: Should we sell it?
By Edward Martin
In the 1930s, Allen Gant got a telephone call in Glen Raven, a crossroads outside Burlington 110 miles up the line. The textile executive, a pilot, flew to Charlotte. Waiting in the Pullman car that had carried him from Wilmington, Del., was a brilliant, moody chemist whose new discovery would change what the world wears. Wallace Carothers’ mission made millions for Glen Raven Mills. “The president of DuPont had given him instructions to share the secret of making nylon with Daddy,” says Allen Gant Jr., the current president. The company, founded in 1880, thrived through the Depression and beyond on nylon and other innovations, including pantyhose, which Gant Sr. invented in the 1950s.
Throughout, the Gants have relied on these rails. Their forefathers helped lay them before the Civil War, and trains delivered the coal that fired the massive steam engine that powered the mill. Today, Glen Raven Inc.’s logistics arm moves goods on them. “You put all those dots together,” Gant says, “and it’s going to tell you how important North Carolina Railroad has been to us and the state of North Carolina.” Formally, that’s North Carolina Railroad Co. Most Tar Heels don’t know they own a rail line. It’s the state’s oldest corporation, chartered in 1849. Starting at this gritty rail yard near 12th Street in Charlotte, it’s about as wide as a baseball pop fly but arches 317 miles across the state. It bisects the urban and industrial heartland, traverses miles of farm fields to link some of the largest agribusinesses and spans coastal rivers and bays on bridges barely wider than the locomotives hauling goods to cargo ships at the Port of Morehead City.
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