Like many other Southern cities and towns, Monroe emerged from the strife and destruction of the Civil War at an economic crossroads. Based predominately as an agricultural society, the region looked to the coming of the railroad to further expand its agrarian economy and open avenues for industrial trade. Finally, in 1874, Monroe was connected to the rail network with the completion of the Carolina Central Railway between Wilmington and Charlotte. The town immediately transformed into a major shipping point along the route by the transport of agricultural products and the receiving of manufactured goods. In addition, Monroe proved a strategic location between the seaport at Wilmington and a rapidly developing Charlotte to the west. In 1892, the completion of the Georgia, Carolina and Northern between Monroe and Atlanta opened the town as a gateway to the Deep South. As a result, the region increased in commercial and railroad prominence by virtue of this connection.
A 1922 Sanborn index map of Monroe with the areas surrounding the railroad. Not unlike numerous other cities in the Piedmont region, the textile industry was an economic cog in the region during most of the 1900s. Prominent on this map is the Seaboard Air Line yard and Lake Tonawanda at town center. The city limits have expanded substantially during the past 90 years.
Early era rail photos are numerous with crews posing with their steed. The photographer captured this group at Monroe with 4-6-0 #562 beneath the Church Street bridge. Image Monroe Miscellaneous History
Cotton was king at Monroe just as it was throughout the South into the 20th century. Bales populate the freight terminal for furtherance to regional cotton mills for processing into fabric. A substantial percentage of the economy centered on this crop and affiliated industries. Image Monroe Miscellaneous History
The 1900s began with the consolidation of these smaller lines into what became the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. At this time Monroe became a rail center in what was expanding into a considerably larger rail network. As the SAL reinforced its mainline to Atlanta and a branch extending beyond Charlotte to Rutherfordton, it also was completing a consolidated network extending south into Florida. Although the Seaboard Air Line eyed the Hamlet-Atlanta-Birmingham corridor with optimism, the primary focus was the lucrative market that was the Florida freight and passenger business.
The great era of the railroad postcard---circa 1910---picturing the Seaboard Air Line depot at Monroe. A century later, the structure remains quite similar in appearance. Image courtesy Union County Historic Page
An eastbound view (railroad north) that looks beyond the Monroe depot during the 1940s. The track in the foreground is the through mainline between Monroe and Abbeville, SC. At left is a train running southbound that appears to be diverging on the line to Charlotte. This may be Train #82, one of the Seaboard famed "Redball" freights that were high priority manifests. Winter photos of steam locomotives are a spectacle in lens work with the white condensate exhaust in the cold air.
The Church Street truss bridge spans the Monroe yard in the distance. This structure would be replaced by 1955 when the new Skyway Drive bridge was completed. Image courtesy Heritage Room Collection (Union County)
As Monroe developed in relation to the railroad, the early years continued to center on the transport of agricultural products. By the late 1800s, the textile industry was developing throughout the North Carolina Piedmont region with the area surrounding Charlotte developing the heaviest concentration. Cotton and coal were the raw materials in greatest quantity used by the industry in the transformation of the finished product. Although the number of mills and related business were not as numerous as the towns to the west, the textile industry presence in Monroe was a force during the first half of the 20th century.
As a mainline junction, Monroe was a strategic location not only on the route to Atlanta but also the regional area extending to Charlotte and western North Carolina. Its yard was a marshalling point for local industry and was complete with a turntable and five stall engine house during the steam era.
The Henderson Roller Mills very early in its history circa 1905. This business would expand during the passing years and become a dominant presence along the railroad in downtown Monroe. For many years, it generated carloads of milled grain for the Seaboard Air Line. Image courtesy Monroe Miscellaneous History
This circa 1950 aerial image of Monroe captures an era when the downtown rail front was still in bloom. The Henderson Roller Mills at left and the Church Street truss bridge dominate the scene. At upper right is the 1906 depot and at far right the spur that leads to the cotton mills near the Lake Tonawanda area. Although the rail yard remains today most of what is visible along the railroad in this image has passed into history. Image courtesy Heritage Room Collection (Union County)
During the SAL era, a number of high priority freights funneled through Monroe from Hamlet to points railroad south such as Charlotte and extending into the Deep South to Atlanta and Birmingham. These high priority freights known as "Redballs" in Seaboard nomenclature symbolized the classification that the railroad placed on them. Famed name trains such as Train #89, the Tar Heel (Richmond to Bostic) and Train #27, The Capital (Richmond to Birmingham) passed through Monroe on a daily basis.
Cotton Mills of Monroe
By the 1920s, there were several cotton mills operating within the inner circle at Monroe served by the SAL. Among these were the Jackson Mills, Bearskin Mills, Standard Cotton Mills, Monroe Mills, Everett Mills, and Icemorlee Mills. One associated shipper located adjacent to the Monroe rail yard was the Southern Cotton Oil Company. Notable non textile businesses were the Monroe Ice and Fuel located along the line to Charlotte and the Piedmont Buggy Company. The Henderson Roller Mill was also a presence along the downtown rail front.
The picture postcard glorified images great and small during the early 1900s. Today they are invaluable as references to an early period of history. Pictured here are Jackson Mills and the Piedmont Buggy Company during the formative years. Image courtesy Union County Historic Page
A Depression era view of Manetta Mills and Bearskin Mills in the distance circa 1937. Vantage point is virtually identical to postcard at left. Expansion has taken place since the time of Jackson Mills. Image courtesy Heritage Room Collection (Union County)
A band marches past the Icemorelee Cotton Mill in its heyday circa 1920s. This mill was served by the Seaboard Air Line located beyond the junction along the Charlotte line. Image collection of UNC Chapel Hill
Company mergers and consolidations are commonplace in the modern era but easily overlooked is the number that transpired in bygone years. The cotton mill scene at Monroe was no different. The Piedmont Buggy Company was gone by 1919 no doubt as a result of the escalating automobile industry and its building was acquired by Bearskin Mills. A unique name, no less, seemingly an anachronism in Piedmont North Carolina presumably named after nearby Bearskin Creek. Jackson Mills became Manetta Mills and no doubt there were others. These were all served by a railroad itself that would change names multiple times as a result of consolidations.
Buildings are more than bricks and mortar. This structure housed the Piedmont Buggy Company during the early 1900s and later became Bearskin Mills. The neighborhood was also the location of other mills and the adjacent Tonawanda Lake that thrived with activity in bygone years. Today it stands as a monument to yesteryear with lingering spirits and a century worth of tales that could be told. Dan Robie 2014
Today, these cotton mills are a distant memory now relegated to the history of Monroe. All elements of the textile industry, whether the raw material or the finished product, are but a mere shadow of the prominent position they once held in the regional economy and Piedmont as a whole. Jobs and production gone forever to overseas markets.
SCL-Early CSX Years
America was still mired in the Iran Hostage Crisis and Ronald Reagan would be inaugurated three weeks later when this late afternoon photo was taken January 2, 1981. An unidentified Seaboard System northbound train from Abbeville, SC pulls into the Monroe yard for a crew change. Train is coming off the Atlanta line....Charlotte line diverges to the right. A solid EMD consist led by SD40-2 #8059 is the power. Image courtesy John Carr/CarrTracks
During the passenger train era, Monroe was a stop for Mail and Express Trains #3 and #4. Without question, the most famous train to call here was the Silver Comet inaugurated in 1947. As one of the SAL famous "Silver" series trains, it was the only one to traverse the line from Hamlet en route to Atlanta and Birmingham. The Silver Comet remained on the timetable long after many noted passenger trains across the country disappeared as the decline in rail travel accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s. After the Seaboard Air Line and Atlantic Coast Line merged in 1967 forming the Seaboard Coast Line, the train continued as a truncated version until its demise in 1969. This was also the end of timetable passenger service on the route as Amtrak has never introduced a scheduled train on this corridor.
The Silver Comet was the premier passenger train through Monroe during the SAL era. Due to its schedule, both the eastbound and westbound trains passed during the night accounting for the scarcity of photos in the territory. Here is the train pictured at Birmingham, AL in August 1952.`Image Charles P. Harrington
Images of the Silver Comet are not as common as ones for its sister trains that ran between the Northeast and Florida. The reason for this is that the train (both north and south) traversed the Piedmont region during the night and the majority of existing photos are of it south near Atlanta.
Train #665 passes through Monroe with three units still in the black and gold of the SCL although by this date it was now the eve of CSX. The date is April 1986 and there are elements in this image that no longer exist aside from the locomotives. Across the yard is the lead to what was the cotton mill district and the yard tracks in the foreground the leads to former trackside shippers. Both no longer exist. Also of note is the north pier from the Church Street bridge inexplicably left in place. It remains so today. Image courtesy John Carr/CarrTracks
As to the future of passenger rail returning, the possibility exists although the infrastructure would require reinstatement. The State of North Carolina is proactively passenger rail and a train running between Charlotte and Wilmington could be considered feasible once CSXT improves the corridor between the two points and if facilities can be added at interim points. Certainly speculation at this point but the future will dictate if this becomes reality.
Early CSX years were defined by the hodgepodge of motive power in an array of predecessor paint. Ex-Family Lines C30-7 #7091 and a Santa Fe mate are paired in the Monroe yard. Image Marcus Toomey 1990
This GP40-2 is still B&O except for the number and ownership. The #6024 indicates it is now a CSX locomotive which is taking a turn as local power switching the Monroe area shippers. Image Marcus Toomey 1990
From the formation of the Seaboard Coast Line in 1967 to the creation of CSXT two decades later, the railroad witnessed decline with specific industries and continued expansion with others. As a general rule, business aligned with the textile industry continued to dissipate and other areas such as poultry expanded. The yard at Monroe remained busy although there were reductions in plant due to the loss of shippers and volume in the inner city area. During the Seaboard era Monroe remained as a crew change location between Hamlet and Greenwood and was also a TOFC (trailer on flat car) terminal. Long distance trains continued running south from Hamlet to points south and vice versa until traffic patterns were changed once CSXT came into existence.
The Monroe depot was showing signs of disrepair when this early 1980s photo from the Seaboard era was taken. It has since been refurbished with the pressed brick and Queen Anne architecture freshly renewed. Image courtesy Heritage Room Collection (Union County)
The "Piedmont Special", an Amtrak excursion from Monroe to Hamlet and back, idles in the Monroe yard during November 1998. Image courtesy Patrick Treadaway
It had been decades since this number of passengers congregated at the Monroe depot. "Piedmont Special" travelers de-boarding from the train. Image courtesy Patrick Treadaway 1998.
Monroe has witnessed a varied sort of motive power passing through town in regards to types and road names. Coal trains to and from the Charlotte line often ran with run through Clinchfield Railroad power assisting the Seaboard units. These trains were operated in conjunction with both railroads to ship Appalachian coal south and eventually, were consolidated into the Family Lines System. Once CSXT entered the scene, motive power from all of its predecessors passed through Monroe until the locomotives were either repainted or retired. Of course, this also held true virtually elsewhere on the CSXT network.
Custom map of Monroe in context to its location within the CSXT Florence Division. Although Hamlet is the regional hub, Monroe is a diverging point south and west to Bostic, NC and Greenwood, SC in addition to points beyond.
SD50-2 #8565 is on the point of Q468 picking up a cut of cars destined for Hamlet. Signal is "North End Monroe" which is also at the north end of the yard leads. Dan Robie 2014
A dead on east (railroad north) view of the Monroe Yard from 2009. Three different CSX paint schemes are represented on the power in this scene of yard power and Q667 running the main on its long trek to Atlanta. Note the patches of growth on the tracks as a result of grain seepage from the covered hoppers over a period of time. Dan Robie 2009
Local train F992, a Sunday variant of the daily F792, works a cut of cars at Monroe. SD40-2 #8082 and SD50-2 #8613 power the switching chores this evening. Dan Robie 2007
Under the present (2014) CSXT operation at Monroe, it is no longer a crew change point as it was during the Seaboard era but is a home for four turn based locals. The old depot is the reporting location for both the local crews and signal department that work the Monroe Subdivision and a section of the Charlotte Subdivision. Traffic in the yard is still heavy as in years past but the industries are mostly in the outlying areas of Monroe as opposed to town center. Until a few years ago, a yardmaster was located here but that position was eliminated. The orders for the crews are now either dispatched from Florence or assimilated by the local trainmaster. Power for these trains is typically SD40-2s and SD50-2s although any offering of General Electric AC or DC units can also be found.
In addition to the four locals, an average of fifteen scheduled trains pass through Monroe daily. Northbounds run towards Hamlet and southbounds run railroad south either towards Greenwood or Charlotte. An exception to this rule are the intermodal trains. Inbounds to Charlotte are classified northbound and outbounds run railroad south. There are extra movements that pass through town as well such grain, ethanol, and reroutes. The Charlotte Sub is also the “coal corridor” to and from the Appalachian coalfields and the route funnels this mode of traffic through Monroe.
Soft evening sun basks empty hopper train N304 running the auxiliary main through Monroe yard as it prepares to diverge onto the Charlotte Sub. A modern train in the literal sense with both new motive power and hopper cars. The bridge in the distance is Morgan Mill Road. Dan Robie 2009
F704 is tied down for the night after switching the poultry plants in the region. SD70MAC #4514 and an AC44CW represent large power used on the train but not at all an uncommon practice. A bad order well car from the intermodal terminal at Charlotte and a yellow temporary speed restriction sign are also visible. Dan Robie 2009
The Monroe Subdivision has been referred to as a bottleneck or a choke point because traffic has a propensity for converging here at any given time. As a single track mainline, the yard often is congested and the siding to the north at Marshville is utilized frequently. Likewise, the situation calls for the use of the passing siding south at Waxhaw to accommodate meets. Depending on traffic volume at a particular time, other passing sidings at Polkton and Catawba come into play as well. CSXT has targeted the Monroe Subdivision for improvements in its National Gateway Project for upgrading the rail corridor between Charlotte and Wilmington but with other higher volume lines above it on the list, the time frame is at least several years into the future when and if this becomes reality.
Q199 (now Q195) power has completed the run around of its train and will couple up to the opposite end. Green signal has it lined for departure to Atlanta. Dan Robie 2008
A smorgasbord of six axle EMDs fill the yard scene on trains F792 (left) and a late Q697 (right). Dan Robie 2011
Patriotism is the symbol of the evening as Old Glory is displayed from the Monroe depot. The late July scene captures Q614 with its long journey from New Orleans nearly completed. SD40-3 #4000 leads two other EMDs passing by en route to Hamlet. Dan Robie 2011
A question that is often asked is why no connecting track was installed from the Charlotte Sub to the Monroe Sub south of the junction thereby creating a wye. This dates to earlier times with the Seaboard Air Line. During that era, virtually all traffic moved east to and west from Hamlet and that was the dominant traffic pattern. Volumes were not high enough between Atlanta and Charlotte to install such a track and it has remained so to this day. Deviating from that pattern are the Q194/Q195 intermodal trains between Charlotte and Atlanta. With no wye, upon arrival at Monroe, the power on the trains must run around the train to continue onward. Although this action lengthens the run times and can contribute to congestion at Monroe, CSXT has opted to continue this practice rather than attempting to purchase right of way and outlaying the capital for constructing a connecting track.
An early morning image of the junction at Monroe looking south. Q468 from Charlotte is entering the yard and the track at left is the mainline to Greenwood and Atlanta. The layout is similar to the Seaboard era excepting for some demolished trackside structures, track realignment/reduction and the new signals. The connecting track at center is used as the arrival and departure track for the Q194/Q195 intermodal trains and Monroe-Greenwood F761/F762 runs. Dan Robie 2014
Q182 has diverged onto the Charlotte Sub at Monroe with GP38-2 #2808 on the point added as supplemental power due to a failure with one of the GEs. Known as the "Threads Express", these trains now run under symbols Q037/Q038/Q040 and are among the hottest trains on the CSXT network. Dan Robie 2010
Shippers such as the cotton mills and associated industries have long since vanished from the railroad at Monroe. Today, the area is known for poultry processing such as the Tyson and Purdue plants. Charlotte Pipe and Foundry is a large shipper as well as other small industries that dot the area in the CSXT scope of operations. As to the future, Monroe will remain a notable location along CSXT with the number of carloads and as a junction point for diverging lines.
Modern day (2014) views from inside the 1906 Seaboard Air Line Railroad depot.
Interior of the Monroe depot that serves as the operations room for local train crews. In the distant past during the era of segregation, this was the waiting room for colored passengers. Dan Robie 2014
Interior view that captures working stations for conductors and a yardmaster desk. Railroad photos adorn the wall here. This was the white passenger waiting room in the era of segregation. Dan Robie 2014
My son Matt took this image of me at the yardmaster desk through the window. A neat effect with reflections but his dad looks about twenty years older than he really is. Matt Robie 2014
A view looking out the dispatcher window. Monroe Sub main is in foreground and the Charlotte Sub track peels off to right. Dan Robie 2014
The past can be stubborn about revealing its secrets. Areas of Monroe--just as with any location--are peppered with traces of yesteryear revealing clues to a bygone era. Some have been altered by the passage of time while others reveal a shadow of what once was.
This is the area at the northeast end of the Monroe yard where once the turntable and engine house were located during the SAL years. In later years, a TOFC (trailer on flat car) ramp was built at this site. Traces of neither remain. Dan Robie 2014
A Seaboard System trailer now used for storage is a lone reminder of a generation ago when TOFC was a line side business at Monroe. Dan Robie 2008
An old siding in the vicinity of Windsor Avenue that served multiple shippers located near the southeast region near the yard. Dan Robie 2014
Traces of siding runs along these buildings and another is in the pavement. This area is close to the Southern Cotton Oil Company and Henderson Roller Mills from old time Monroe. Dan Robie 2014
Charles P. Harrington
The Heritage Room Collection (Union County)
Monroe Miscellaneous History
UNC Library Chapel Hill
Union County Historical Page