The History of Burlington, North Carolina

View Larger Map



In 1849 the North Carolina General Assembly formed a railroad track from Charlotte to Goldsboro. In 1956 the North Carolina Railroad needed to build repair and maintenance shops at the halfway point between Charlotte and Goldsboro. This midway point fell in Alamance County. The railroad first choice to build these shops was in Glen Raven. The shops were not built there because the owners of the land did not want anything to do with the railroad nor did they want to sell their land. The next choice was Graham. Like Glen Raven Graham also did not want the repair and maintenance shops built in their town. The people of Graham did not want the railroad to disturb their quit town and their court. To make sure of this Graham passed a law prohibiting the railroad from building tracks or shops within one mile of their courthouse. The railroad decided to build its shops and tracks in what is now Burlington because of General Benjamin Trollinger of Haw River. He owned land two miles west of Graham and sold it to the railroad. The railroad then began building what would become Company Shops and later Burlington.


Company Shops

Company Shops consisted of seven brick buildings and eleven brick houses. The first building to be completed was the boarding house owned by James Dixon. The other buildings constructed included a foundry, a wood shop, a locomotive repair shop, an engine shed, a blacksmith’s shop and two car shops. Company Shops also had eleven houses, which were home to shop workers and three railroad company executives. The town continued to grow and in 1857 the railroad office building and a hotel was constructed. The office building was built on the block which today is Front, Webb, and Main Street. The hotel built during this time was a two-story building and had a large porch on the second level. The hotel became famous for their food and had famous guest like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison stay there. In 1857 Company Shops consisted of 27 building and was continuing to grow and become more prosperous. In 1861 the telegraph came to Company Shops. According to an interview with Don Bolden, an author of three books on Burlington, one of the first messages to come across the telegraph was the news that Fort Sumter had been attacked. The small town of Company shops continued to grow in the 1870s. During this time Pete Neese opened his jewelry store, Sellars. 


Becoming Burlington

In 1886 the North Carolina Railroad decided to move the maintenance and repair shops to Manchester, Virginia. This scared the small town

Downtown Burlington 2013 (photo by awagner10)


 because their main basis for the economy was the railroad at the time. Instead of packing up and leaving with the railroad the people of Company Shops decided to stay and find a new basis for their economy. In the town there were two cotton mills, which provided employment and also a coffin factory that was very prosperous. These businesses saved the town and its economy. Since the railroad had left the people of Company Shops in 1887 the people thought it appropriate to change the name of the town. A committee was formed to decide a new name. Dr. B.A. Sellars, Dr. R.A. Freeman, Captain James A. Turrentine, Joseph A. Holt , J.A. McCauley, W.A. Folgleman and W.A. Erwin made up the committee.  Before deciding on Burlington the committee contemplated names like Carolinadelphia and Holtsville. According to the interview with Don Bolden it is not clear how the committee came up with the name Burlington. He says that one myth is that the committee members named the town after a bull bought from Burlington, Vermont that would escape and run around the town.  The name was officially changed to Burlington on February 14, 1893.


The Late 1800s

In the late 1800s the town of Burlington shifted its basis for the economy to textiles. Many textile mills were started in the area because steam engines allowed them to operate in places without running water for power. These mills included Lakeside Mill, Mayfair Mill, and E.M. Holt Plaid Mill. This textile business boosted the economy after the decline when the railroad left.



The Early 20th Century

During the early 1900s Burlington’s main business was the manufacturing of hosiery. There were 80 hosiery mills in Burlington, most of the small family run operations. Two of the major hosiery companies in the area were May Hosiery and McEwen Hosiery.  During this town Burlington was known as “The Hosiery Center of the South”. In 1923 J. Spencer Love founded Burlington Mills, which later became Burlington Industries (B-I). The company soon became the town’s biggest employer and the basis of the small town economy. When the cost of cotton fell Burlington Mills switched to producing a new a synthetic fiber called rayon. This product helped Burlington become one of the largest manufactures of textiles in the world. The company switched to producing rayon just before the start of the Great Depression. This change in manufacturing saved the town during the Great Depression because while other mills across the country were closing Burlington Industries was able to expand and provide more employment to the people of Burlington.  Employees of Burlington Industries received pay increases during this time.


 World War II

During World War II the government put in Fairchild Aircraft to build a training plane for the United States Army Air Corps. This provided more employment opportunities for Burlington and also attracted more people to the town. Hundreds of people came to Burlington during this time for employment form across the country. These new people brought their customs and culture with them, which made Burlington more diverse.  Don Bolden in an interview said that he thought the most prosperous time for Burlington took place in the 1930s and 1840s. This is because of the employment created by the governments Fairchild Aircraft and the prosperous Burlington Industries.




Bolden, D. (n.d.). Burlington, NC - Official Website - City History. Burlington, NC - Official Website. Retrieved October 5, 2013, from

Bolden, D. (1979). Alamance in the Past. Burlington, N.C.: D. Bolden.

Bolden, D. (2009). Burlington. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia.

Mock, G. (n.d.). Burlington Industries. Textile Industry History. Retrieved October 8, 2013, from

Stokes, D. T. (1981). Company Shops, the town built by a railroad. Winston-Salem, N.C.: J.F. Blair.

Personal Interview with Don Bolden