Lake Norman & Mooresville

Freight line carries cargo and history

The single track rail line that runs from Charlotte northward through Huntersville, Cornelius and to Mooresville adjacent to N.C. 115 has been the subject of much attention over the past few years as transportation officials consider using it for a Charlotte commuter train.

However, even if the passenger rail plan never materializes, the line boasts a rich history, while still playing an important role in local commerce.

Each weekday, diesel locomotives coupled to freight cars traverse the 17 miles from Charlotte to Cornelius, bringing valuable cargo to a trio of large companies and a number of smaller customers.

The lines major customers are:

Gerdau Amersteel, the second largest mini-mill steel producer and steel recycler in North America.

Pactiv, which manufactures the Hefty brand products including waste bags, slider storage bags, disposable tableware and disposable cookware.

Foamex, a producer of foam products for the home, healthcare, electronics, industrial, personal care and transportation markets.

"This was and is a vital line and its history is rich, " said Ben Lee, regional vice general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineer and Trainmen.

Lee, 58, who lives in Wadesboro and occasionally still runs trains along the line, has four generations of railroading in his family.

"I remember the days when this line would sometimes handle 150 to 200 car freight trains making their way to and from Charlotte."

According to Lee, passenger services were discontinued in the early 1980's and the tracks between Mooresville and Statesville were removed. Signs of the line's right-of-way are still evident in Troutman, where the downtown depot and Richardson Walkway occupy spots along where the rails once were.

However, the line's history goes back the middle of the 19th century, according to historian Bill Schafer.

"The line, known officially as the Atlantic, Tennessee and Ohio Railroad Subsidiary of Norfolk Southern, was completed in 1860.

"During the Civil War, its rail was pulled up and used in constructing the Piedmont Railroad between Greensboro and Danville, Va., which was more critical to the war effort. After the War, the AT&O was rebuilt and reopened in 1871, " said Schafer.

A second line connecting Winston-Salem and Mooresville was completed in 1899. Passenger service was offered until the 1950s, but the most important use of the line was to provide a conduit for freight trains operating between Winston-Salem and Charlotte and Asheville and Charlotte.

"Every night until 1979, a long freight train departed Asheville headed for Charlotte with many of its freight cars filled with furniture from the Hickory-Lenoir area, " said Schafer.

"It also carried finished textiles from the many mills along the way.

"About the same time, a different freight train departed Winston-Salem for Charlotte, pulling boxcars filled with tobacco products, " said Schafer. "Both trains used the same line that runs through Cornelius and Huntersville into Charlotte. "

The importance of the line declined once a new freight sorting yard at Linwood opened in 1979.

Today, the line usually has one train per day that runs from Charlotte to Cornelius.

There are currently no regularly scheduled trains between Cornelius and Moorseville, according to Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman. Trains travel slowly, 10 mph maximum speed, and crossings are protected by gates and crews.

The line's customers count on that one train.

"The rail line has been a great asset to the mill since it was first built 50 years ago, " said Casimiro Liborio, vice president and general manager of the Gerdau Ameristeel mill near the Charlotte/Huntersville border.

"We depend on it heavily for delivery of scrap metal, which we melt to make steel, and we still ship out a sizeable portion of our products this way. "

Looking ahead, officials from the Lake Norman area, Charlotte and the state continue to ponder future options for the line, including both freight and passenger train operations.

Charlotte is a major rail freight shipping center. Some believe a plan to upgrade the line for dual passenger/freight use could attract funds to make needed improvements quicker.

Freight customers like Liborio admit the addition of the commuter line would impact their business by requiring night time freight operations.

However, they appear ready for the change.

"We will be able to adjust easily if that happens and the additional mode of transportation would be a tremendous benefit to the community, " said Liborio.

Even in its current configuration, railroad veterans and its customers agree the line is an important cog in North Carolina's freight transportation network as well as its history.