In the early 1860s the railroad, in the form of the Atlantic, Tennessee and Ohio Railroad (AT&O) arrived in Davidson. The AT&O was incorporated in Tennessee in 1852 and in North Carolina in 1855, with the intention of connecting Charlotte to the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad near Jonesboro, Tennessee. By 1860 the tracks were completed between Charlotte and Statesville, allowing passengers to connect with trains for other locations. In 1863, however, the Confederate government took up the tracks and rails to be used in the construction of the Piedmont Railroad from Greensboro to Danville, Virginia.
Fortunately for Davidson, in 1869 the state of North Carolina issued bonds to help rebuild the tracks between Charlotte and Statesville. The first train ran on the new line in 1871, an event welcomed cheering crowds. However, the route never extended into Tennessee as planned. In a sparsely settled part of the state, with a burgeoning college, trains were an important way for both local residents and Davidson College students to get to and from town. On special occasions like commencement, extra trains were added to bring families and spectators to town.
The AT&O continued to operate the line until 1881. That year the company leased the line to the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad, which was taken over by the Richmond and Danville Railroad until it went into receivership in 1892. The receivers operated the railway until 1894, when it was acquired by the Southern Railway Company. In 1907 the North Carolina legislature ruled that public transportation should be segregated, and African Americans were consigned to a car right behind the engine, where smoke often engulfed the passengers. Having rail service facilitated the increase in industry in Davidson, including the organization of the Linden Mill and the Delburg Mill. It also provided the opportunity for an occasional prank. According to historians Ralph Levering and Jan Blodgett, in the 1950s Davidson resident Doodle Brown and his friends oiled the railroad tracks, so that when a train stopped in Davidson it couldn’t get any traction to get going again.
In 1982 the Southern Railway Company joined with the Norfolk and Western Railway to form the Norfolk Southern Corporation. In 1990 Norfolk Southern merged all of its operations to form the Norfolk Southern Railway, which currently owns the line. The original route of the railroad continues to be intact except for tracks which were removed between Mooresville and Barium Springs (Troutman); that traffic was rerouted to the Barber-Winston Salem route. Trains continued to serve manufacturing plants between Charlotte and Mooresville until the 1990s. The stretch of track between Statesville and Barium Springs is now in disrepair, and the section between Mooresville and Cornelius, although it is not officially out of service, is almost dormant.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.