This Month in New Bern History – April 2022

A Reason to Celebrate

by Claudia Houston, Historian, New Bern Historical Society

"We today are so immersed in – and blasé about – technology that it is hard to understand how big a deal it was when the first railroad train rolled into a 1850s North Carolina town. I can only guess that we might feel that sensation today if a rocket ship landed downtown...

...All along the line, people were giddy for celebration. And celebrate, they would. They celebrated the first shovel of dirt in the construction process. They celebrated the arrival of first trains at individual towns. And they celebrated the completion of the railroad. All that celebrating seemed to be pent up inside the people, and it just had to come out." Moving North Carolina blogsite,

Ten shares of stock in the North Carolina Rail Road Company. Courtesy

During this month in history, the completion of the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad from Goldsboro to New Bern culminated in one of the biggest celebrations to ever take place in New Bern.  A committee of fifty-one men were appointed to plan for a celebration to be held on April 29, 1858.  Colonel John D. Whitford, president of the railroad, was named chairman of the ball committee, and William H. Oliver was appointed entertainment chair.

William Oliver had the herculean task of determining how to prepare food for residents as well as for the thousands of guests that were expected from all over the state.  The first thing he did was order from New York enough white granite plates and dishes, glassware, cutlery to set off the immense tables which were to be erected.  Also ordered were two thousand pounds of fresh meats and one thousand bushels of oysters for the immense party which was taking place on Thursday!  The fresh meats and oysters were delivered on Tuesday in extremely warm weather causing a high level of anxiety among the organizers as they feared the meat and oysters might spoil.  Fortuitously, despite the late spring date, by the next morning a heavy snow had fallen and the food was saved, much to the relief of all.

Pamphlet describing the celebration held upon the completion of the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad line between New Bern and Goldsboro. Publisher: Oliver, William H. Date: 29 April 1901 (Kellenberger Room, New Bern-Craven County Public Library).

Almost every household was involved in cooking of some sort which included a vast number of baked peach and apple pies.  Mr. Sebastian Bangert, the owner of a local bakery and confectionary, ordered a boat load of yam potatoes which were put in his ovens Wednesday night and baked to perfection for consumption on Thursday.  Seven long tables had been erected; they were covered with nice white cloths and on them were placed the crockery and the glassware as well as the provisions which had been cooked by almost every house in New Bern.

Visitors began arriving in trains from all parts of the state and soon an estimated eight thousand people filled the streets of New Bern.  Rev. Dr. Francis L. Hawks and Henry W. Miller, Esq., addressed the visitors and townspeople at the Academy Green.  There was a thirteen-gun salute, a military parade at the Academy and instrumental music by the United States Band from the ship "Pennsylvania.”  Everyone then proceeded to the Round House at the railroad depot.  All were invited to the sumptuous banquet in the railroad machine shop which was the only facility large enough to hold everyone.  The tables were laden with food and, of course, there was a generous quantity of champagne and scuppernong wine as well.  A splendid ball was held later at the railroad depot.

Original frame depot and brick roundhouse which are no longer standing. Photo by Ed Gerock circa 1890. New Bern Historical Society Collection.

Many townspeople were concerned about what was to be done with the great quantity of cutlery and glassware.  A meticulous planner, Mr. Oliver had made arrangements for its disposal.  Mr. John C. Coart, a local auctioneer, sold the cutlery and glassware at public auction and enough was realized from the sale to cover their initial expense.

As noted in the Weekly Union (New Bern) newspaper: “Thus ended the ceremonies of the celebration of the 29th of April 1858, a day long to be remembered in Newbern, and may we not say, in North Carolina.”

On Friday morning, the “Newbern Light Infantry” along with many local citizens met at the railroad depot to honor their guests and send them off with a grand farewell.  A fitting end to the great Railroad Celebration in New Bern!

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