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OVERVIEW: CHARLOTTE AND ITS NEIGHBORHOODS: The Growth of a New South City, 1850-1930

by Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett

Charlotte, North Carolina, is the largest city in the Carolinas and a distribution, banking, and textile center of the Southeast. It is located in Mecklenburg County on the border of South Carolina, in the Piedmont region about midway between the North Carolina state capital of Raleigh and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The city itself has 310,799 people by the 1980 census, and geographers consider it the center of a twelve county urban region known as "Metrolina", containing over 1.3 million inhabitants. 1 Charlotte has more than tripled its size since it first passed the South Carolina port of Charleston in 1930, and to a casual observer it appears a very new city. Charlotte's impressive growth, however, occurred in the fifty years before it took the lead. Between 1880 and 1930 the city's population jumped more than eleven fold, from 7,094 to 82,675 citizens. 2

The city today is very much a product of this "New South" era, the decades following the Civil War and Reconstruction when the whole Southeast forcibly began to turn itself from farming to industrial and urban development. Charlotte had always been a trading point, from settlement at a crossroads of two Indian trails in 1753. Nearby discovery of gold, leading to a construction of a U.S. Mint in the village in 1837, expanded the trade territory, as did the building of railroads beginning with western North Carolina's first line in 1852. As late as 1880, nonetheless, Charlotte remained a dirt-street crossroads community with barely seven thousand inhabitants, where farmland was only a fifteen minute walk from the central Independence Square. Then in 1881 Charlotte's first cotton mill opened. It was part of a regional movement that saw American investment in textile mills transferred out of New England to the Cotton Belt of the Upper South. The movement began as a trickle and grew to a torrent. As early as 1906, boosters celebrated the fact that "within the radius of 100 miles of Charlotte there are more than 300 cotton mills, containing over one-half the looms and spindles in the South." 3 In 1927 the South surpassed the Northeast in textile production, making Charlotte the center of a major new American industrial region. 4

Much as Boston had been for the New England textile empire in the nineteenth century, Charlotte was a trading and financial hub of the New South textile region in the twentieth century, although on a smaller scale. Regardless of where in the region their mills were, mill owners like LeRoy Springs, Martin Cannon, and Stuart Cramer, Jr., had their homes and offices in the city. They were joined by hundreds of cotton brokers, graders, salesmen, and machinery dealers who kept the mill economy humming. Charlotte was headquarters, as well, for the bankers and financiers who helped make large scale production possible. Here, too, were the estates of the engineer-entrepreneurs of Duke Power, whose inexpensive hydroelectric power helped attract and hold the region's industry as the twentieth century progressed. Cotton was not the only game in town. Charlotte's central location in a growing web of railroads and paved highways, together with the capital available from the textile entrepreneurs, resulted in a quite diversified economy by the 1930s. Charlotte became a distribution center for, among other things, motion pictures in the Carolinas and it was an important regional focus for country music and blues recording in the days before the prominence of Nashville.

The city's investment community funded buildings, neighborhoods, resorts, and factories all over the Southeast. With the rapid population growth came department stores and all the other service industries of and affluent city. The town's economic growth between 1880 and 1930 fueled a complete physical transformation, more radical than even the population increase would suggest. Charlotte's New South leaders went to great lengths to rebuild their city to emulate the big industrial capitals of the North. They were bold in their faith in what was new and urban, even if common sense maintained that the city's small size did not yet really justify some undertakings. By 1930 the former dirt-street town had not only pavement, but parks, mass transit, skyscrapers, and a ring of suburbs in the former farmland. Charlotte's development patterns were set as much as they would continue into the 1980s. Charlotte's finest architecture and neighborhood planning are a product of this era of wealth. The city's early New South leaders cared a great deal about how their city would look and function, and hired some of the best design professionals in America. Few small American cities can match the quality of talent at work in Charlotte in the 1910s and 1920s. These included nationally important city planning leaders like the Olmsted Brothers and John Nolen of Boston, and such widely recognized architects as Philadelphians Aymar Embury and Charles Barton Keen, and New Yorker William R. Stoddart. Charlotte also produced its own regionally-important body of designers including architects C.C. Hook and Louis Asbury, and especially city planner Earle Sumner Draper. Most of the architects, planners, engineers, and builders serving western North Carolina and upper South Carolina were headquartered in the city. The growth of Charlotte since 1930 has destroyed parts of its early New South legacy, particularly in the central city where hundreds of buildings have been demolished for parking lots, expressways, and empty land. Yet much of historical value remains from Charlotte's proud past. Today people are rediscovering the nineteenth century origins of Fourth Ward and Biddleville, taking new pride in the tree-shaded winding avenues of the New South streetcar suburbs like Dilworth and Myers Park, and even recognizing the importance of the commercial and industrial landmarks that survive to illustrate Charlotte's transformation from town to city.


Notes

1James W. Clay, ed., Atlas of Charlotte Mecklenburg, 2nd ed. (Charlotte: Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 1981), p. 1 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Twentieth Census: 1980, preliminary statistics.

2 Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, "1950 Census Data" (Charlotte: Chamber of Commerce, 1950). This report conveniently includes figures back to 1850.

3 Julia M. Alexander, Charlotte in Pictures and Prose: an Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Charlotte, North Carolina (New York: Blanchard Press, 1906c), unpaged.

4 Broadus Mitchell and George Sinclair Mitchell, The Industrial Revolution in the South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1903), p. 3.


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