Charlotte has long been known as a thriving industrial center. Though textile mills are among the most talked-about industries in the city’s history, they were not the first businesses in the Queen City. The first manufacturer to open up shop in Charlotte was a rifle company, followed by flour and saw mills. It wasn’t until William Henry Neel added spindles to produce yarn in his grist mill in the Steele Creek area of Mecklenburg County in the 1850s that the first cotton was produced in Charlotte.
Prior to the opening of the mill, Mecklenburg County hadn’t been engaged in the production of cotton on a large scale. The introduction of the cotton gin changed the local economy and cotton eventually surpassed all other forms of industry in the region. In fact, more cotton was ginned in Mecklenburg than any other county in the state.
Several mills sprung up in Charlotte to meet the demand. The Glenroy Cotton Mill was the first in the county devoted to the spinning of cotton fiber. The mill opened in 1874 with 350 spindles and operated for 18 months before being demolished in 1899. The Charlotte Cotton Mill opened in 1880 followed by the Alpha Cotton Mill in 1889. Several yarn mills, a gingham mill, a sheeting mill, and a towel factory began operating in Charlotte following the opening of the cotton mills.
By 1897, local cotton mills had 75,000 spindles and produced 20,592 bales of cotton per year, making Charlotte a major textile center. The demand for cotton continued to grow and large manufacturers absorbed many of Charlotte’s small mills, moving operations out of the city. As the cotton mills began closing, another industry began taking over in Charlotte.
Rail transportation was introduced in 1852 when the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad roared into town where 20,000 citizens were gathered to celebrate the daily service between Charlotte and Columbia, South Carolina. Textiles manufacturers did make use of the railroad and helped turn Charlotte into a distribution hub for cotton.
In 1854, the North Carolina Railroad made its first trip from Concord to Charlotte. The 219.2-mile track ran from Goldsboro, North Carolina, to Charlotte through Raleigh and Greensboro. The state still owns the North Carolina Railroad and receives fees for its use. Both railroads—along with the Atlanta & Charlotte Air Line Railway and the Atlantic, Tennessee & Ohio Railroad—came together as the Southern Railway System in 1894.
In 1852, there was just one passenger and freight train arriving in Charlotte daily. By the 1920s, the number of trains increased to a peak of up to 30 trains per day. The arrival of new railway lines allowed Charlotte to expand its industrial production for export and to attract new industries. The railroad was instrumental in spurring development in Charlotte, leading to the construction of skyscrapers and suburbs.
There are still remnants of cotton mills and railroads in Charlotte, but today the city is known primarily as a financial center. Initially, the banking industry began after gold was discovered in 1799. The Charlotte branch of the U.S. Mint opened in 1837 and drew banks to the area. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the banking industry really gained momentum in Charlotte.
Hugh McColl Jr. was instrumental in consolidating a number of banks and financial institutions into a regional banking conglomerate. It was his dream to create the first national bank with branches from coast to coast. McColl’s initial efforts resulted in the creation of NationsBank. In 1998, McColl coordinated the merger of NationsBank and San Francisco–based Bank of America, creating a Charlotte headquarters for the bank that has become the largest financial institution, by assets, in the nation. He was chairman and CEO of the Bank of America until his retirement in 2001.
Bank of America is just one of 326 Fortune 500 companies located in Charlotte. Others include Lowe’s, Duke Energy, Family Dollar, Food Lion, LendingTree, Belk, Harris Teeter, and Goodrich Corporation. Between 1999 and 2008, more than 7,300 new businesses invested more than $12 billion in Charlotte and created in excess of 65,000 jobs. The recent recession has hit Charlotte hard, in no small part because of the subprime meltdown. Unemployment rates, which were just 5.2 percent in 2008, topped 10.2 percent in 2009. In the first quarter of 2009, Gross State Product (GSP) decreased by 6.4 percent and 8 of 11 economic sectors were expected to experience declines, including construction, finance/insurance/real estate, durable goods manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade, and agriculture.
Charlotte’s Role as a Major Banking Center
It might come as a surprise to learn that Charlotte is the second-largest banking center in the nation. Unlike New York, where ticker-tape parades, investment banks, and the NASDAQ define the city, Charlotte is more subtle about its role as a hotbed of financial activities.
Banking was not the first industry to make an appearance in Charlotte. Historical records indicate that it was a Lancaster, Pennsylvania–based rifle company that opened its doors in Charlotte that claims the honor as the first industry in the Queen City.
It was the discovery of gold in 1799 that put Charlotte on the map as a center for the financial sector. John Reed found a 17-pound stone on his farm that turned out to be gold. As news of the discovery spread, prospectors flocked to Charlotte in the hopes of striking it rich and the amount of gold in the area led to the city becoming a center for U.S. gold production. In fact, there was so much gold in the area that president Andrew Jackson authorized the establishment of a U.S. Mint branch in the Queen City.
The mint, which was completed in 1837, drew banks to the area. In the coming years, Charlotte National Bank and Southern States Trust (now the Bank of America) opened in Charlotte. The Federal Reserve also came to Charlotte, opening its doors in 1927 and allowing the area’s banks to grow. It wasn’t long before Charlotte had more banks, capital, deposits, and resources than any other city in North Carolina. Today, Bank of America has its headquarters in Charlotte and, until Wachovia was sold to Wells Fargo, it was headquartered here, too. Wells Fargo/Wachovia maintains a strong local presence.
The Economic Impact of NASCAR
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, better known as NASCAR, is the lifeblood of the region. Auto racing is one of the biggest contributors to the local economy and draws more than 600,000 visitors to Charlotte and the surrounding areas on an annual basis.
Race fans descend on the Queen City to watch stock car races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, visit the race shops of their favorite drivers, and experience racing culture in the form of museums and NASCAR-themed hotels and art galleries.
According to some estimates, the economic impact of NASCAR tops $4.5 billion in Charlotte and more than $5.9 billion statewide, with an annual growth of up to 5 percent per year. The new NASCAR Hall of Fame is expected to bring 400,000 visitors to Charlotte every year, resulting in an annual economic boon of $62 million.
© Jodi Helmer from Moon Charlotte, 1st Edition