Carrboro residents are accustomed to the train that rolls through the town’s downtown every morning, stopping traffic and ringing its bell. However, not many know that Carrboro’s history with the railroad dates back to before the town even existed.
In 1882, Carrboro was founded around a train depot. Carrboro was referred to then as the “West End” of Chapel Hill. When the rail line was built, there was no intention of forming a town separate from Chapel Hill.
“The train was actually running in Carrboro long before it was the town of Carrboro,” author and lifelong Carrboro resident Richard Ellington said.
In the years that followed, the train was used primarily to haul materials and products to and from an iron mine in Chapel Hill.
In the 1930s, the train had several passenger cars added so that it could be used for travel as well as freight purposes. By then, the railroad stretched all the way onto UNC’s campus. It had stops directly in front of Wilson Library and the space now occupied by Davis Library, Ellington said.
“There was a giant train trestle that went across Columbia Street and turned right into Polk Place," said former Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton. "Many of the buildings you see on Polk Place were built with stone blocks and other materials that were brought in with that rail line.”
Carrboro’s rail line was not just used to transport materials to the University – it also transported materials in and out of the town’s munitions plant during World War II.
Today, that same railroad line is used to haul coal in and out of UNC’s power plant, which is the school’s main source of power and hot water. Some residents are worried about the environmental repercussions of the freight train transporting coal to the plant on a daily basis, but Chilton said the railroad is the best option to sustain the plant.
“The train is a pretty efficient way to get coal to the power plant,” Chilton said. “The alternative is to bring that coal to the power plant by tractor-trailer. I think folks would like that a lot less because you would need a lot of tractor-trailers to transport the same amount of coal.”
Mike Benson, owner of the train-themed Southern Rail Restaurant in Carrboro, saw the town’s rich railroad history and existing active rail line as a business opportunity. Benson came up with an idea for a train-themed restaurant when he bought two old train cars at an auction. Southern Rail now exists in the two train cars and an adjacent building that was once Carrboro’s original train depot.
“We built a metal structure around the two train cars, restored them, and made Southern Rail Restaurant,” Benson said. “It was a natural progression because of the availability of the train depot.”
Ellington said the town of Carrboro owes its existence to the train depot.
“Most towns grew up around the railroads,” Ellington said. "The railroads weren’t built because of the towns, the towns were built because of the railroads.”
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