A History of Salisbury, North Carolina

The community now known as Salisbury was first established as a county seat by the colonial Assembly in April of 1753. Originally known as simply Rowan Court House, its purpose was to provide settlers with the services of a court house and jail. The location of the court house was no accident, in that the site was near the intersection of two ancient Native American trails. Ultimately, the new court house would serve as the anchor for a new center of government, transportation and commerce in the area. Less than two years later, in February of 1755 the court house community was formally created as the town of Salisbury, the county seat of Rowan County. Land grants to several settlers soon followed, including one to James Carter, a surveyor in the area.

Carter set to work laying out the lots and streets of the new town, devising a plan that had a total of 256 lots. (Not surprisingly, 67 of the lots were on property Carter had been granted.) At the center of his plan, he drew a square made up of four equal quadrants or wards, each four blocks by four blocks. Thus, the heart of the new town had 64 lots on a grid system of streets laid out in a classic rectilinear pattern.

Interestingly, Carter’s notion of the proper layout of Salisbury was not particularly original. Rather, it was patterned, like most other American colonial towns of the day, after the 1682 plan for Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s plan had three principle features: (1) a gridiron street system, (2) a system of open spaces, and (3) uniform spacing and setbacks for the buildings. Historians have noted that perhaps because it was a principal port of entry, Philadelphia was widely copied by later American towns, as the settlement of the country moved farther to the west.

Thus, most colonial towns, including Salisbury, took on a basic grid-iron or trellis street pattern. In Salisbury's case, this resulted in a series of streets running in a southwest to northeast direction, parallel to Town Creek, and another series of streets running southeast to northwest, perpendicular to the alignment of the creek. This layout created city blocks that were 400 feet long and 400 feet deep. Eventually this same basic street pattern would be extended out uninterrupted for five to ten blocks in all directions from the main intersection at the center of the square.

Within the grid-iron framework, a very compact town evolved. As Carter had envisioned, the major civic, cultural, and trading buildings of the day were built within a very short distance of the main intersection. A mixture of businesses and homes filled in the voids and spilled out a few short blocks away from the town center. Homes were large and lots small to keep walking distances to a minimum. Servants quarters and smaller houses for the underclass were also kept close, given the need to walk virtually everywhere. This pattern of development would largely define Salisbury's growth for the city’s first 150 years.

During the period from about 1830 to 1900, numerous economic, social, and technological changes of the industrial revolution would take America, and to a lesser extent, Salisbury, by storm. Railroad lines, which totaled 23 miles nationwide in 1830, increased to 2,818 miles by 1840. The telegraph (1844) and the telephone (1876) revolutionized the speed at which information could be transferred. The invention of the passenger elevator (1852) and the Bessemer steel converter (1864) paved the way for the development of skyscrapers beginning in the 1880s. Gas lights and, later, electric lights (1878), revolutionized indoor lighting, and made the fire hazards of congested buildings less threatening.

Salisbury was by no means isolated from these revolutionary technological advances. With the arrival of the North Carolina Rail Road in 1855, Salisbury’s future became heavily intertwined with rail commerce and the growth it spawned. The rail line, which paralleled Main Street just two blocks down the hill toward Town Creek, established the southeastern border of the central business district. Before long, a number of commercial and industrial enterprises sprang up along the rail line. At the same time, smoke and ash blown by prevailing winds from the north and west made areas to the south and east of the city center "the wrong side of the tracks." As a result, a pattern of city growth was established which would see the most desirable residential neighborhoods of the future located largely to the west and north of the town center. This early pattern continues to this day.

As America was nearing the turn of the century, the influence of rail on Salisbury was to become even more pronounced. The Southern Railway Company selected a site just to the northeast of Salisbury for a large steam locomotive repair and maintenance facility. The Spencer Shops opened in 1896, and the Town of Spencer was officially incorporated in 1902. Thus, the northeastern boundary of Salisbury was fixed and an even greater impetus for expansion of the city to the north and west was set in motion.

By 1900, train traffic through Salisbury was at an all-time high, electric lights were in common use throughout much of the city, telephone lines crisscrossed the community, and a municipal waterworks was in use.

Even so, these technological advances had their downsides in many cities. When coupled with the enormous demand for labor to drive the machinery of the industrial revolution, overwhelming pressure existed to pack more people into less housing. After 1865, in fact, housing in large cities became congested to the point of plainly unhealthy conditions. By 1870, crowding in New York City tenement houses caused a city-wide equivalent density of 326 persons per acre (compare this with one family on a half-acre lot today).

The practical, unwritten principles of city design and natural development constraints which had ruled city form for the country's first 150+ years had given over to the excesses that unbridled technology and demand for labor wrought. Housing for the working class provided for little or no light and air. Sanitation was poor. Diseases spread quickly. Fire was a constant threat. The mood of the country for a different pattern of urban development was ripe for change. One technological innovation, not yet spoken of, would provide the means for this change in New York and, to a lesser extent, in Salisbury: the electric streetcar.

Salisbury was not isolated from this new phenomenon of suburban idealism. From the early 1900s to the beginning of the second World War, the city of Salisbury underwent its first major change in urban form since the coming of the railroad in 1855. In 1905, Salisbury’s streetcar system was put in operation. In 1906, the Southern Development Company, capitalizing on the availability of the streetcar system, laid out a significant new development southwest of the city center, naming it Fulton Heights.

As Salisbury’s first "street car suburb," this 314 lot development employed a uniform, rectilinear street pattern. Mitchell Avenue, the neighborhood’s primary street, included a central median to accommodate the streetcar line. Most significantly, Fulton Heights offered the convenience of a short street car ride to the downtown for shopping and entertainment and, from there, continuing along Main Street to the Spencer Shops for work. Thus, the availability of cheap public transportation to new areas like Fulton Heights made possible the movement of Salisbury's working class to the suburbs.


Salisbury was granted a US Post Office on June 12, 1792, and its first Postmaster was Mr. George Lauman. It has been in continuous operation ever since.


© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved