Media Scene

Documentary looks at N.C. roads and transportation and how we got here

Moving North Carolina

10 p.m. Thursday, UNC-TV

You probably knew or suspected much of what is in a UNC-TV special about how North Carolina developed its transportation web – how highways followed old buffalo trails and Indian paths, why the state was so backward when it came to developing roads, how the state’s unnavigable, shallow rivers put it at a disadvantage compared with its neighbors.

But it’s unlikely you knew about Calvin Graves, a state senator from Caswell County who voted his conscience rather than the party line. He put into motion the railroad that created fortunes and carried the Piedmont out of the depths of isolation.

It was Graves, in 1849, who broke a tie vote and authorized creation of a railroad that would run from Charlotte to the port at Morehead City. Half the Senate wanted to open new markets to commerce, while half felt government had no business meddling in what should be a job for private enterprise.

Graves was from Caswell County, north of Greensboro, and a railroad that might serve his area had been rejected. Opening up the western Piedmont to markets in the east wasn’t in his best political interests, but he thought it would bring vast prosperity to the state. He was right.

Still running today, the N.C. Railroad turned the western district to an agricultural powerhouse and turned little Charlotte into a major commercial center. Because no navigable waterways led to the ports and because conservatives opposed state spending on roads, North Carolina had come to be known as the “Rip Van Winkle state” in transportation, decades behind South Carolina and Virginia and their deep-water ports with good inland connections.

Produced by Michael Sheehan with original music by Jack Herrick of the Red Clay Ramblers, “Moving North Carolina” sweeps us through centuries of history, along the Indian trails and through eras of the canal, steamboats, turnpikes, railroads, trolleys and airports.

One thing, it appears, hasn’t changed in 300 years: people still complain about the roads. In olden days, even before the motor car, they were more mud than pavement. Today they are often more parking lot than highway.

Much of what North Carolina has become was because of what the transportation network provided. People followed the roads and the trading paths, and even the advent of electrified trolleys at the dawn of the 20th century profoundly changed the way people lived by creating accessible suburbs beyond the dense city.

Interstate 85’s arc across the state follows what was once the great trading path, trod by moccasin and still visible as a depression in the forest in undeveloped places along the highway. Today I-85 is one of the busiest commercial arteries in the nation.

“Moving North Carolina” isn’t a celebration of mobility as much as it documents the sometimes-tortured path to the future. It points out some of the short-sighted thinking that built the state’s road network, like when the newfangled Interstate highways were planned in the 1950s.

There wasn’t one that went through the capital at Raleigh, nor one that went to the ports at Wilmington or Morehead City. It took decades to rectify that with the eventual construction of I-40.

It shows us how owe a debt to those who recognized that transportation meant progress, and sometimes ran afoul of conventional thinking. Sen. Graves was one – for voting for a railroad, he was turned out of office in the very next election.