Trains — A Personal History of Clinton and Sampson County

By James Ingram Reynolds (1906-1996), written in 1991, edited by Joel W. Rose

james reynolds

According to Mr. Ferdie Johnson, Mr. Bill Russell ran a star stagecoach route between Clinton and Warsaw and Mr. Joe Nolley ran a horse-drawn freight line in the area. They made their last trips on March 30, 1886, as the very next day was the first day that the train came to Clinton from Warsaw.

I remember Mr. Russell and Mr. Nolley quite well. Mr. Russell later ran a saloon at 121 Vance St. It had a brass rail below the bar for your feet and of course, there were spittoons. He offered a free lunch table for his patrons as long as they bought beer and whiskey. Mr. Russell lived on Devane St. Mr. Nolley later ran a restaurant on Court St., just back of the First Citizens Bank building on Main St. Later on, he moved to the 200 block of Vance St. and lastly Mr. Nolley ran a store on the east side of McKoy St., just north of Lee St. Mr. Nolley lived on the east side of Sampson St., north of Lee St. Back in those days Vance St. was known as “Grog Row” on account of so many saloons and drunks hanging around. A lady was never seen on Vance St.

There are at least three little incidents that I personally saw pertaining to Mr. Nolley and his restaurant on Vance St. His restaurant had a long table and wooden benches for seats, and a sawdust floor and he served fish and beef stew. Mr. Nolley was a very large, fat man and he wore an apron around his body while at work. When a customer finished eating, Mr. Nolley would dump the remains of the plate, wipe the plate over his stomach, put the plate back on the table and serve the next customer. He didn’t charge his customers anything for the food as long as they bought drinks.

Mr. Nolley later ran a store on McKoy Street. When bottled drinks first came around, a customer stopped and asked Mr. Nolley if he had any cool drinks. Mr. Nolley replied, “They should be cool, they being in the shade all day.”

People in those days used a lot of plug-type chewing tobacco and the merchants had a little contraption that they could raise the handle that lifted a blade, slide a plug of tobacco under the blade, press down, and it would cut the plug of tobacco in half. I saw Mr. Nolley in collecting twelve and a half cents from a customer, take the penny, then used the tobacco cutter to cut the penny in half. That is quite different from today. Once a small boy walked into his store, placed his nickel on the counter and ordered a bottle drink. On being told that a drink would cost him twenty-five cents and the boy only having a nickel, he asked the clerk if he could get candy or chewing gum for his nickel. On being told they had nothing for a nickel, the little boy was downcast, turned and started out the door, leaving his nickel on the counter. The clerk called the boy back and told him to pick up his nickel. The boy replied, “Keep it, you can’t buy anything with it no ways.”

When I was a small boy I would hang around the town gate on McKoy St. near Mr. Nolley’s store, and I’d open and close the gate for people to pass through. Sometimes, they would throw me a penny, and I could buy a lot with a penny in those days. Also, back in those days, Vance St. was known as Grog Row on account of so many saloons and drunks standing around. A lady was never seen on Vance St.

Grog Row

In the old days Vance Street was known as “Grog Row” because of numerous saloons and “drunks hanging around”. Mr. Bill Russell ran a saloonon 112 Vance St. and offered a free lunch to his patrons, as long as they bought whiskey and beer.

In 1880 railroad beds were started by the Northeastern Cape Fear Railroad Company to run a line from Clinton to Point Caswell down below Ivanhoe, and then on to Wilmington. But they ran out of money and construction was stopped a few miles outside of Clinton. That railroad bed is still in use today as a road and is known as Tram Road.

April 1, 1887 was perhaps the most memorable day in Clinton’s history, as on that day transportation to and from the outside world was established by the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. It was on this day that the first passenger train pulled out of Clinton headed for Warsaw to make a connection with the world, from Clinton’s standpoint. A few citizens of Clinton, desiring to ride on the first train out, boarded at the old Toll House site on Lisbon St. Everyone was in a jolly mood because of the fact that all supplies for Clinton merchants could at last be brought in by train rather than mules and wagons.

Mr. Ferdie told me that he went to Warsaw and boarded the train there on its very first trip to Clinton. He also told me that years later, the railroad gave him the first bell or a similar bell that was on that first locomotive. For a long time he kept it on a pole in his yard.

Those first trains that came to Clinton used wood to fire the steam boiler. Often times, when the train would stop, the passengers would help load the wood onto the train. The local farmers near the tracks complained that the sparks from the train engine set fire to their buildings and fields and so forth, and the noise scared their chickens and livestock. The farmers definitely preferred horse-drawn wagons, since they threw out no sparks, made little noise, and could not explode. Just one year prior to the railroad coming into Clinton in 1885, the first telegraph wires were put into operation.

With the arrival of the railroad into Clinton, a great celebration was held on April 27, 1887. A parade was forming on Fayetteville St. and it included a military unit from Wilmington. A Colonel Jones was riding a spirited horse, holding his sword in one hand. A brass band, as they were called in those days, played away. Colonel Jones’ horse bolted and as they passed a Clinton resident who was also on a horse, Mr. Henry James of Devane Street, the sword that Jones was holding passed completely through Mr. James’ body. This happened on Fayetteville Street near the Presbyterian Church. A doctor and a blacksmith arrived on the scene. It was decided that the sword was to be broken in half and the blacksmith then used his tongs to pull the sword out of Mr. James’ body. Mr. James recovered fully and lived to be a ripe old age. I remember Mr. James very well.