1948 was a big year in Columbia

Published 12:33 pm Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Seventy years ago the last steam locomotive pulled out of Columbia, the engineer blowing the whistle over and over again as it chugged westward 22 miles to Mackeys.

The Norfolk Southern Railway had called it quits after 40 years of service along the Columbia branch, which included sidings at Beasley, Scuppernong, Creswell, Woodley, Travis, and finally Columbia, the end of the line.

Much of the four-lane U.S. 64 highway between Columbia and Exit 548 lies where the railroad tracks were put down in 1907-08.

When the first train arrived in Columbia, the Branning Manufacturing Co. lumber mill, with seven boilers and seven smokestocks, was situated on ground now occupied by the Tyrrell County Visitor Center, The Walter B. Jones Center for the Sounds, and the parking lot to the east of them.

The Norfolk Southern station was in the middle of Scuppernong Drive just east of South Broad Street. The main track ended at what is now the east end of Railroad Street. A branch to the north extended to the present site of Secota Village, where a large sawmill was located, and a wye along Railroad Avenue permitted the engine to reverse heading for the run back to Mackeys.

The Norfolk Southern network was hampered by the slow ferry across Albemarle Sound, so the company constructed a five-mile-long timber trestle across the sound between Horniblow Point and Mackeys Ferry, and the first train across it ran on January 1, 1910.

One oldtimer recalls seeing 90 refrigerated rail cars loaded with Irish potatoes leaving Columbia at one time, but rail traffic out of the small town declined over the decades as better highways and bigger trucks came on the scene.

So, railroad service to and from Columbia terminated in 1948, and on September 21st of that year, the East Carolina Bank in Columbia was robbed by six men from Norfolk. All were caught and served long prison terms. Most of the $68,000 taken was recovered. The robbery made front page news in Raleigh and Norfolk newspapers for a couple of days.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that $68,000 in 1948 is equivalent to $711,450 today.