Burlington is a small city containing a variety of historical and architectural significance that collectively reflect its character as it developed primarily from the middle 19th through early 20th centuries. A few buildings survive from the community's earliest years as Company Shops, the settlement established in 1854 by the North Carolina Railroad Company for its headquarters and maintenance and repair shops. Many more properties from the 1880s through the 1920s represent Burlington's rapid growth and development as a textile center of national importance. Altogether, these structures provide a relatively comprehensive view of a community whose development is based upon the railroad and a primary industry.
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Settlement had begun in this piedmont area as early as the middle of the 18th century when German, Scotch-Irish, and Anglo-American farmers were attracted to the rolling terrain of the Carolina colony by the availability of fertile land, in contrast to the already-crowded conditions in the middle Atlantic colonies. Agriculture in this early period was restricted to subsistence farming, although farmers began raising grain crops before the end of the century.
It was shortly after the North Carolina Railroad Company was chartered by the state legislature in 1851 that the area's development pattern shifted to the course that was to produce an urbanized community. The piedmont's increased influence due to an influx of settlers necessitated access to markets in geographically isolated areas for its agricultural and new industrial products. As construction of the new railroad line began, the North Carolina Railroad Company sought to establish its repair shops and headquarters midway on its line. After the leaders of Graham refused to allow construction of the shops in their town, the company purchased a 631 acre tract of land from area landowners about 2 miles northwest in 1854. Construction of the new town was initiated with the erection of shops and buildings and the workers' and administrators' housing beginning in 1856. The company ambitiously added depots, offices and a fine hotel.
The Civil War slowed community growth for several years. The railroad continued to operate, serving as an important link in the Confederate war effort, especially during the final months of the conflict. At the end of the war, as in much of the South, recovery was slow in Company Shops resulting in little construction for several years. Through the 1860s most businesses were either owned or controlled by the railroad company, but as the community grew, it became a market center for the surrounding area and people unconnected with the railroad were drawn into the town. Private concerns and small manufacturers began to operate and serve the needs of the community. In 1872 Burlington had several shoe factories, a chair factory, a wheelright, a gunsmith and 8 general stores in addition to railroad company operations.
During the post-war years the North Carolina Railroad Company gradually relinquished its control over the community through the divestiture of land. The railroad leased its line to another company, offices were moved and many railroad employees were transferred or moved elsewhere.
In recognition of the town's new economic base, the town of "Company Shops" changed its name to Burlington in 1887. The town was an excellent site for a cotton mill, with steam power allowing mills (already plentiful in Alamance County) to be built away from the rivers. With an established town and a rail line, the Central Manufacturing Company chose Burlington to operate a company mill beginning in 1880.
Some of the mills continued operating, in earnest, into the 1980s.