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The Building Of Independence Boulevard

By Dr. Dan L. Morrill

Independence Boulevard tore this community apart.  Beneath the deafening din of car horns and truck exhausts I can still hear the anguished cries of the hundreds of Chantilly, Elizabeth, and Piedmont Park residents who gathered at Midwood School on Central Avenue on September 8, 1946.  These were desperate people who had just learned that Mayor Herbert Baxter and the City Council wanted to use $200,000 of local bond money to help build a massive "cross-town boulevard" up Westmoreland Avenue, down High Street, and across the Sunnyside Rose Garden, through Independence Park and along Fox Street past the Douglas and Sing Mortuary, through Cherry and the Thompson Orphanage pasture, up Stonewall Street and down Brevard Street to end at Morehead Street.

Herbert Baxter, a New Englander,  first came to Charlotte as an Army trainee at Camp Greene during World War I.  He returned to Charlotte after the war and became a member of City Council and later mayor.

The protestors called it a "foolish scheme" that could "throttle traffic between downtown and the eastern residential districts."  One irate resident suggested that the route had been chosen because it would increase the value of the property that Ben Douglas, District Highway Commissioner and former Mayor, owned at what is now the intersection of Independence Boulevard and Elizabeth Avenue.  "In fact, it is strange," the irate citizen proclaimed, "how the highway seems to seek out the schools, the stadium, one of the few parks we have, the Rose Garden and other such places to bring its roaring buses and streams of cars along throughout the day and night."  "Virtually everybody who lives in the eastern part of the city will have to cross its snake-like meandering," the group warned.  

Mayor Ben Douglas was a major player in Charlotte in the 1930s and 1940s.  He was District Highway Commissioner when Independence Blvd. was built.  

Lucille K. Tyson, an elderly lady, lived at 829 South Brevard Street, right in the path of the proposed "cross-town boulevard."  "My thoughts may not mean so much, but I feel pretty blue and washed up today," she lamented in a letter to the Charlotte Observer on March 13, 1947.  "Many times I've looked out to see surveyors all around the place, our property staked off.  Again, an official sitting in a parked car observing and figuring."

Ms. Tyson felt powerless, maybe afraid, as she saw her whole world crashing down around her and saw no way out of her dilemma.  "We work and work to enjoy a few happy moments in our old years, knowing we do not have many more to go.  Here comes a new idea.  A Super Highway!  There!  We have to pick up and go," she decried.  "Certainly, I feel let down about having to lose a home.  It is something to think about when it hits you."  I do think about Lucille Tyson every time I drive down Independence Boulevard.

"Somebody's toes are bound to be stepped on."  That's how Councilman John P. White, the stern, cigar-smoking, 67-year-old production manager and mechanical superintendent of the Charlotte Observer responded to the protestors of the proposed "cross-town boulevard."  A native of Alabama, White lived on Grandin Road in the Wesley Heights neighborhood off West Trade Street.  Like the majority of Charlotte businessmen of that era, he was caught up in the euphoria and optimism that gripped the country right after World War Two.

City Councilman John P. White put together the coalition that approved the route of Independence Blvd.

Exciting things were happening all over Charlotte.  The real estate market was booming, as developers like C. D. Spangler and John Crosland labored feverishly to provide housing for the hordes of veterans who were marrying and beginning their families.  Brides appeared  in regal, white gowns on page after page of the Sunday newspaper, serenely ready to partake of the wonders of the newest kitchen paraphernalia.  Dishwashers.  Electric can openers.  WBT was about to put its FM station on the air.  Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman were starring in "The Bells of St. Mary's" at the Carolina Theater.  In August, 1946, Liggett Drugstore opened its lavish, modernistic drugstore on the northeastern corner of the Square, where the Bank of America headquarters are now located.

This picture looking from the Square down East Trade St. shows the kind of congestion that existed on Uptown streets.  A fellow is sitting at a piano on the platform suspended from the crane as a promotion for the March of Dimes.  That's Liggett Drugstore on the corner.

This was not a time for sentimentality or restraint.  "You only look back for reasons to move ahead, and by golly nobody can say that we lacked ideas," Mayor Baxter told journalist Kays Gary in 1964.  A handsome and personable Bostonian, Herbert Baxter came to Charlotte during World War One to train at Camp Greene, settled here, prospered in the lumber business, and moved to a fine home on Queens Road.  "Because he was so much a doer by nature," the Charlotte Observer reported, "he was never a precise planner, never a man to wait to weigh every possible detail that might go wrong."

Ben Douglas was cut from the same bolt of cloth.  A native of Iredell County, Douglas moved to Charlotte from Gastonia in the mid-1920s and established a funeral home at the corner of Fox Street and Elizabeth Avenue, now Independence and Elizabeth.  His wife has vivid memories of the Douglas and Sing Mortuary, especially of the green awning that ran from the front door to the curb.  A tireless and adroit politician, Douglas was Mayor from 1935 until 1941, and earned the reputation of being the "Builder of Modern Day Charlotte."  Douglas loved the drama and passion of the political arena, and he devoted his enormous energies and talents to leading the people into what he regarded as a bright and prosperous future.  Born in the 1890s, he reached adulthood during the "roaring twenties," when it seemed that everybody was making piles of money in the stock market.  Then came the crippling Depression of the 1930s.  Douglas saw himself as a cheerleader, as an urban booster who would rally the people of Charlotte and give them hope.

The real brain behind the building of Independence Boulevard was James B. Marshall.  He was a brilliant engineer who had served as Mayor Ben Douglas's City Manager.  Born in Anderson, S.C. in the early 1890s, Marshall graduated from the College of Charleston and settled in Charlotte in the 1920s.  He left City government in 1941 and joined J. N. Pease as an engineer and contact man with City Hall.

In 1946, the Charlotte Planning Board hired Marshall as a consultant to prepare a master plan for Charlotte's streets.  Several month earlier, the North Carolina Highway Department had conducted a comprehensive survey of local traffic trends and had determined that Charlotte needed  "cross-town boulevards" to relieve congestion on uptown streets.  The prospect of grand and majestic expressways was music to the ears of men like Mayor Baxter and District Highway Commissioner Douglas.

The first mention of what was to become Independence Boulevard occurred in the Charlotte Observer on May 7, 1946.  C. W. Gilchrist, Chairman of the City Planning Board, announced that Jim Marshall had completed a street plan that included an expressway from Graham Street eastward along Stonewall to Sugar Creek, where it forked, one arm leading to the Monroe and Albemarle highways, and another connecting with Queens Road.  On June 4th, City Council Adopted Marshall's master scheme, even though the exact route of the cross-town boulevard was still undecided.

The issue did not surface again until September 1946, when word leaked out that the expressway would split the Chantilly, Elizabeth, and Piedmont Park neighborhoods.  A throng of infuriated citizens packed the City Council meeting on September 10th, and their spokesman, attorney Frank K. Sims, Jr., accused the City of being secretive and manipulative. They had good reason to be mad.  The group had not even seen a map of the proposed route.

Mayor Baxter assured the neighborhood leaders that the location of the expressway was still up in the air; he directed City Manager Henry A. Yancey to release maps of the cross-town boulevard; and he promised the protestors that they would have ample time to express their concerns.

On October 8, 1946, the City Council gathered for an informal dinner at the Myers Park County Club, where Mayor Baxter was president.  In those days it was customary for the Councilmen to decide issues in private and then to merge like the College of Cardinals and cast their pre-determined votes.  Imagine what the scene must have been like.  There in the midst of Myers Park, with fine china, cut crystal, and sumptuous food on the table, the representatives of the people endorsed the route through Chantilly, Elizabeth, and Piedmont Park.

On October 21, 1946, the outraged resident of the affected neighborhoods descended upon City Hall for a public hearing.  The atmosphere was tense and electric. "Isn't it a little absurd," Frank Sims remarked, "to build a highway that winds and twists and turns across a park and baseball diamond and over a rose garden and through a thickly populated residential section just to reach Ben Douglas's property?"

Mayor Baxter and the Councilmen back down in the face of this fierce public opposition.  They instructed Jim Marshall and Henry Yancey to come up with alternative routes for the expressway.  

At 2:00 p.m. on November 12, 1946, the City Council toured eastern Charlotte to examine three prospective rights-of-way.  One was the original route up Westmoreland Avenue and through Independence Park, from which the cross-town boulevard eventually took its name.  A second used Westmoreland but turned left on Hawthorne Lane to Fourth Street and continued across Sugar Creek to Stonewall.  The third spared Chantilly, Elizabeth, Piedmont Park, the Sunnyside Rose Garden, and Independence Park by entering the city along Monroe Road, swinging left past the railroad overpass to connect with Randolph Road, continuing to the intersection of Queens Road and Fourth Street, then moving through the Cherry neighborhood to Morehead Street, and proceeding along Morehead to South Boulevard.

City Council approved the third route by a vote of 5 to 1 on November 25, 1946.  Ponder what that would have meant for the Eastover and Crescent Heights neighborhoods and the Mint Museum.  But this route was never built, because the Federal government, the principal financier of the project, rejected it outright as unsuitable for an expressway.  On December 5, 1946, the Councilmen took up the issue again.  For a while it looked like Charlotte would never decide the issue of where to build Independence Boulevard.  The members of City Council seemed to be hopelessly divided, two favoring the original route, two supporting Hawthorne Lane, and two opposing the road regardless of its route.

City Council John P. White saved the day.  He persuaded Ross Puette and Henry Newson to abandon Hawthorne Lane and back the original route.  "By jingo, at one point there, I thought I was going to have to switch to Hawthorne Lane myself," White laughed.  Such were the fickle ways of politics in those days.

The battle was not over.  City Council approved the contract with the Federal government on March 11, 1947, but the opponents threatened to sue the City for misuse of local bond money.  The next City Council had to reaffirm its support for the project in June 1947.  The momentum to build the cross-town boulevard was irreversible.  And we all live with the consequences -- good and bad.