Railroads and Wagons

Tobacco and Rail – A Natural Partnership

The railroad was the largest industry in the area that tied its fortune to tobacco.  Access to markets was critical. Tobacco needed rapid transport from the warehouse to far away processing and manufacturing facilities, and other businesses had their own vested interest in better transportation. Many of them, and certainly tobacco, began pressuring state and federal representatives to build railroads that were convenient to them.

NC Rail GrowthRailroads were economically justified only by their tobacco customers.  And likewise, the tobacco business could not serve a national market from its base in rural North Carolina without railroads.

The growth of North Carolina railroads closely paralleled their growth nationwide, and railroads represented half of the economic investment of America in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Nissen Wagon Works

Other transportation also grew with the tobacco economy.  Areas, like Yadkin County, adjacent to Forsyth County and Winston-Salem, west of the Yadkin River, never got a railroad.  They depended on the locally manufactured Nissen and Spach wagons.

The Nissen Wagon Works was one of the largest wagon makers in the South during the nineteenth century.  In a state with notoriously rough roads, the Nissen wagon — a lighter-duty version of the Conestoga — played a crucial part in early tobacco distribution.

John Philip Nissen opened a wheelwright shop four miles south of Salem in 1834.  By 1850 he and six employees were producing sixty-five wagons annually.  In the good years that followed, Nissen tripled the capital invested in his business as he purchased steam- and horse-powered machinery to double his production capacity.  The Nissen Wagon Works grew to more than six hundred acres.

Increased competition came when William E. Spach opened a nearby wagon works in 1854, building wagons whose quality rivaled Nissen’s. The two firms continued to thrive well into the twentieth century. Following Nissen’s death, his sons assumed control of the business until 1925, when they sold it for nearly $1 million. [$14.7 million -2020]

The Nissens reinvested their profits in an office building about the same time that the  Reynolds Building, RJR’s new headquarters, was constructed.  These two buildings, opened in the depths of the Great Depression, creating an oversupply of office space that was not filled until the 1940s.  The Nissen Building still stands prominently on Fourth Street.

Lewis, J.D. “North Carolina Railroads.” North Carolina – Transportation & Travel. Little River, SC 29566. 2004-2009. Accessed July 5, 2020. http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/home.html

McKaughan, Joshua. “Nissen Wagon Works.”  NCpedia, 2006. Accessed July 5, 2020 https://www.ncpedia.org/nissen-wagon-works