Mr. Nunn's Address of Friday Evening, May 16, 1919
Delivered on the occasion of the Presentation of the Historical Books of Col. Whitford to the Library Association of New Bern, N. C.
Mayor Edward Clark presented the Historical Books of Col. John D. Whitford, which had been donated by his son, Mr. Reid Whitford. This gift was accepted on behalf of the Association by the President, Mr. T.A. Green.
Judge O.H. Guion in his usual pleasant manner introduced the speaker of the evening, Hon. R.A. Nunn, who gave the following sketch of Col. Whitford’s life, as follows:
“The late Col. John D. Whitford, son of Hardy Whitford, and Mary J. Clark, his wife, was like many of our best and most useful men, of English and Scotch-Irish ancestry. He was born in New Bern, Wednesday, 17 August, 1825. Through both parents he was related to many of the first families in the county. His father was a prominent merchant in this town 100 years ago. As a boy he attended the old New Bern Academy and had the educational advantages of that old institution where several men afterwards famous received their training. He did not pursue his studies in college nor university, but such was his diligence in acquiring knowledge of people, public affairs and commercial interest, and so great was his love for books, history and general literature, he was early recognized as an accomplished scholar of great learning and unusual talent and distinguished for his retentive memory of folks and events. When he was barely 21 years of age he was elected Mayor of the town, or Intendent, as the office was then designated. He always manifested practical and substantial interest in the development of the community and as soon as he was placed at the head of the local government and such schemes characterized his whole active life. Under his administration the streets were improved, ponds were drained, old creek bottoms filled in, and brick sewers, then called aqueducts, constructed for drainage purposes. Every now and then some of these old aqueducts are found when excavations are made and they never fail to excite interest because none of this generation knows how or when they were built so far beneath the present surface, but as a fact they are or were among the first if not the very first underground brick aqueducts constructed in the state. He also promoted and caused to be erected the beautiful shell-rock wall around Cedar Grove Cemetery to protect the burying ground from the hogs, goats, and cattle, which roamed at large all around and over the town in those days. He believed in the enforcement of the town ordinances and it is related that on one occasion when he had caused a woman of some prominence to be arrested for violation of the new ordinances designed to protect pedestrians and duly made and provided to prevent and remedy the common evil of throwing waste water from the windows of houses, most of which were built flush with the street and with porch and steps jutting out half-way across the sidewalk, he resisted all appeals of influential friends of the misdemeanant and went on with the prosecution and pronounced the offender guilty, but having demonstrated that justice is blind, he exemplified that it is also merciful, by paying the ten dollar fine which he imposed.
“After his term of service as mayor, he was appointed United States Collector of Customs at this port. New Bern then enjoyed a large coastwise and foreign trade. A great many vessels were owned by residents of the town and a thriving export and import trade was carried on extensively. The office of collector was therefore an important and responsible position.
“Soon after this he began to devote much of his time to the great work of his life. As a young man he enjoyed the friendship of William Gaston he remembered as a small child, John Stanly, and he had imbibed the spirit and hope of these men and of Judge A. D. Murphey, and others like him, who on the early days of our progress had the vision to see what North Carolina was destined to be when the natural resources of the state were developed. He joined hands with men like Col. Peter G. Evans, Alonzo T. Jerkins, William G. Bryan, Charles Slover, John Blackwell, John R. Justice, William H. Washington, George S. Stevenson, Moses W. Jarvis, Edward R. Stanly, Fred P. Latham, Israel Disosway, Hardy B. Lane, James C. Stevenson, George Green, Henry G. Cutler, Alexander Miller, and Alexander Mitchell, and fired than with enthusiasm and ambition to execute the plans and hopes of the leading men of the previous generation, and through his untiring efforts and life management the great plan of joining the east and west assumed form and life.
“The Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad Company having been incorporated by the General Assembly of 1853, the first meeting of the stockholders was held in the courthouse at New Bern, Wednesday, 14 July 1854. The minutes of the meeting show that the action to organize was made by John D. Whitford, Esq. The first general meeting of the stockholders was held 20 and 21 July, 1854, and the company organized and John D. Whitford, At. T. Jerkins, E.R. Stanly, R.N. Taylor, F.P. Latham, Wm. P. Moore, George Green and George S. Stevenson were elected directors, and by them Mr. Whitford was elected president of the company. He was still a very young man for such a position and the responsibility it entailed. When his selection was considered a signal honor at the time, yet it was universally agreed that no man was more deserving. Without interruption he continued as president for ten years with most gratifying success.
“In his report to the stockholders in July, 1855, Mr. Whitford speaking of the object of the company said; ‘The importance of the great work before us cannot but be apparent to every man from Beaufort to Goldsboro; yes from the ocean to the mountains. The project was conceived a quarter of a century ago, and originated in the patriotic minds of such men as William Gaston, John Stanly and John Washington. They believed it to be a great work of deep interest to the state, and which was to be an important contributor to its resources. Let us then imitate the example of those great and good men. Let us work constantly and energetically to the day of its completion - dear to their virtues and memory, a noble monument - bequeath to our children and posterity a precious legacy, and reap for ourselves a glorious reward.’
“At the meeting in July 1865, he reported that of the three locomotives ordered by the company, two of them, viz. the “Gov. Bragg,” and “Charles F. Fisher” had been delivered, and that the third, the “John Becter” should be ready as soon as required. He described them as first class engines and proudly reported that the “Gov. Bragg”‘ was put in motion on the road at New Bern, on March 15, 1865, and a few days later delivered
to Mr. Stanly, one of the contractors with a train of platform cars, and had since that time run about 2,000 miles without a screw having been loosed, or one cent laid for repairs, except for slight damage received by the accidental falling of a shell.
“These locomotives would be curious things now. They had no cover for the boiler and when it was wet and chilled by rain the steam went down and the train came to a standstill; wood was burned as fuel and the strong draft threw great sparks out through the balloon shaped stacks and passengers wore linen dusters to protect their clothing from dirt, soot and live cinders. The regulations provided that the greatest care must at all times be taken to avoid the scattering of sparks, cinders or fire in any shape from the engine chimneys; that steam must be shut off and the damper closed before the engine reached bridges which must be crossed in no case faster than six miles per hour and care must be taken not to slide the wheels except in case of imminent danger. The railroad tickets read; ‘Kinston to Goldsboro’ or other points, and bore in addition what would now be significant, the words ‘One Seat’.
“A year later, 16 July 1857, President Whitford stated to the stock holders that Miss Sarah B. Metts was the only lady who had taken stock in the A. & N. C. road; he therefore moved that she be allowed a free ticket for life, on the entire line. The motion carried unanimously and by acclamation.
“Miss Metts afterwards married Mr. T.J. Mitchell, long a prominent business man of this city, and is the mother of Messrs. T.J. Mitchell and J.G. Mitchell. She enjoyed the pass to the end of her life.
“On the 1 January, 1857 the track having been laid to Core Creek, a second class passenger car was placed on the road and run with the construction train, for the accommodation of passengers in connection with the New Bern, Kinston and Goldsboro line of stages. By this time another locomotive, the “John Stanly” had been acquired and the company had other elaborate equipment consisting of one second class passenger car, four house cars, twenty platform cars, sixteen gravel cars, and two hand cars, and the president was trying to get a contract with the United States to carry the mails.
“8 January 1858, the train passed over Neuse River and ran through to Kinston; on the 29 April the road was opened to Goldsboro; on the 19 February, 1858, Trent River was spanned with a bridge and the first crossing of the locomotive was announced with the roar of cannon and huzzas of many hundred people, who had assembled to witness this feat. The 31 May brought the tracks of Gov. Morehead and Yr. Wood, contractors, together, and on the 7 June, the first train ran through from Goldsboro to the ocean. President Whitford describing this says; ‘A most singular and happy coincident, without any preconcerted arrangement or knowledge of what each other were doing, at the very moment, when thousands of fair daughters and distinguished sons of the good old North State, had assembled in the west, around the base of a column, eager and breath-less to catch the eloquent words that fell from the lips of a patriotic citizen, in praise of him to whom it was erected, we were then engaged in the east completing a monument, to the great projector of railroads, more lasting than stone and more durable than adamant- the cherished scheme of his life, uniting the east and the west in iron bonds and
perpetual brotherhood. But when they all have crumbled to dust and shall have passed from the memory of man, then will the practical wisdom and sound forecast, the spotless names and glorious deeds of a Caldwell and a Gaston stand bright upon the pages of their country’s history, and shine and continue to shine, and illuminate the pathway of generations yet unborn.’
“In these arid days of war regulations, Reed amendments and Constitutional provisions, for fear of violating prohibition laws and regulations, I must refrain from describing in detail the Celebration held at New Bern to chronicle the first arrival of a train with passengers and freight by rail from the west. The invitation of the inhabitants of the town was extended and met with generous response. Heavily laden trains from the Wilmington and Weldon North Carolina, Raleigh and Gaston and Western North Carolina roads as well as the A.& N.C. road, brought thousands and thousands of people. A Great dinner was provided and barrels of liquor and many, many dozen cases of champagne consumed. A vessel from New York brought the wet goods and the country was scoured for pigs, chickens, turkeys, and everything good to eat. Our distinguished subject reports to his stockholders; ‘Nothing occurred by accident, or otherwise, to mar the pleasure of any, and all returned to their homes loud in expressions for the success of our enterprise and the welfare of our people.’
“From June, 1865, Mr. Whitford was not president of the A.& N.C. road. In 1866, he was elected to the State Senate from Craven County (penciled note says he was chairman of the committee that designed the state flag, while in the state senate) and received a larger number of votes than any man had been honored with up to that time for public office in the county. In June 1866, he was again president of the railroad company and at the stockholders’ meeting 27 June, 1867, the following resolution was adopted; ‘Resolved that the thanks of the stockholders are eminently due, and are hereby tendered to John D. Whitford, Esq., for his able and efficient administration of the affairs of this company during the last year more especially does this company owe to his untiring energy the funding of the remainder of the debt due to the state, and thereby rendering it possible for the stockholders to realize within a reasonable time some return for their investments.’
“Several times afterwards he was re-elected president of the company. It was a position much sought after and parents held out to their sons as a reward for merit the possibility of being president of the A.& N.C. Railroad Company, president of the United States or Governor of North Carolina.
“In his 26th year on the 15 January 1851, Mr. Whitford married Miss Jeanie Reid of Wilmington, N.C. To them were born seven children, viz. William Whitford (note says; University of Va. Grad), brilliant lawyer, who died in early manhood; Miss Mary Whitford, now deceased; Capt. Reid Whitford, Civil Engineer, who resides in Charleston, S.C.; Miss Jeanie Reid, who married W.P. Fife; Clark Whitford, who lived in Mississippi most of life and died there several years ago; Miss Bessie, who married Dr. George Slover of New Bern; Miss Johnes Dalton who married Dr. C. Williams Bailey of Georgetown, S.C.; and Orlena Sheltton, who died in infancy.
Mr. Whitford was an active fireman in the volunteer department of the town and for a long time was foreman of one of the companies.
“He was a prominent and a most enthusiastic Mason, a member of St. John’s Lodge for more than half a century, and was exalted to the sublime and honorable degree of Royal Arch Mason. (Note says; Master of the Lodge; gave oil portrait of himself to it).
“When the New Bern Light Infantry, a local military company was organized, he promptly became a member, and from this company he and Jacob Brookfield were the two first volunteers for service in the Civil War. In the Confederate service he was commissioned first as Captain, then as Major, and just prior to the coming of peace he was promoted to a Colonelcy. He saw service with General L.0.B. Branch, was in the Battle of New Bern and in the fighting around Kinston and other places. But on account of his special railroad experience, railroad men being• scarce in those days, he was placed in charge of the transportation of troops and munitions of war through North Carolina by the Confederate States Government. He was also State agent for the purchase of cavalry equipment and other war materials. His service was so useful it brought to him a most complimentary letter from General Robert E. Lee.
“4 July, 1859, the New Bern Light Infantry, ‘As a token of respect and esteem’ publicly presented Mr. Whitford an elegant punch pitcher cast from silver dollars donated by several members of the Company.
“Before the Civil War he was director of the North Carolina railroad company and was also a member of the State Commission for the improvement of the Neuse River.
“He was a member of the convention which passed the Ordinance of Secession.
“He was a delegate to the River and Harbor Convention held in Savannah in 1884 and after that for a period was Superintendent of certain river improvements in North Carolina made by the national government. Immediately following the Civil War he was instrumental in establishing in New Bern the firm of Whitford Dill and Company, shipping and commission merchants, and agents for Murry, Ferris and Company, owners of the first line of steamers successfully operated between New Bern and New York, he was also a member of the brokerage house of John F. Pickrell & Co., 143 Broadway, New York. He was indeed a man of unusual ability, broadminded, and always possessed the courage of his convictions, outspoken and taking the initiative in public enterprises and always bending his activities to the upbuilding of his home town and the advancement of the commercial importance of New Bern.
“In disposition he was generous to a fault, amiable, kind, fair and just. In manner was cordial, cheerful and most attractive. He was by nature an instructor and builder. When I was a small child I used to play in his yard a good part of my time with his grandson, John D. Whitford, Jr., for whom he built a miniature railroad, and which every child in the neighborhood enjoyed. Like every big-brained, kind-hearted, strong man I have ever known, he loved to see things grow, and had a large and wonderful garden full of apple trees, peaches, pears, figs and grape vines, to say nothing of radishes and other things children. are crazy about. We looked forward with great eagerness to the times when the Colonel would take us through the garden. I well recollect the first time I ever heard of the amazing story of the scientists about the beginning of the world and the origin of the universe. Colonel Whitford sat on the steps of his home and graphically pictured and explained to his grandson and myself what in later years
came to know as the nebular hypothesis.
“Through his long life he had treasured in his memory more facts and accounts of by-gone days than any one in this community. He was the best authority on local history and was distinguished as an antiquarian. He was interesting at all times, well liked, honored and popular. In the prime of his life it was said that no man in North Carolina knew by name and face as Colonel Whitford except possibly Governor Zeb Vance.
“It is difficult for us of this generation to realize the tremendous obstacles that stood in the way of building a railroad 65 or 70 years ago. It is an Herculean job now, but Col. Whitford and his associates wrought in the days of human slavery, before the time of applied electricity, automobiles, motion pictures, flying machines or wireless telephones were known; when water was taken from the town pump; chunks of fire borrowed from the neighbors or tediously kindled from flint and punk; tallow candles shed their feeble light and meals were cooked in the fire place; but then as now the minds of progressive men looked forward.
“He lived in the period of the greatest development the world has ever known. In his time the United States expanded from the narrow margin of states along the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and across the Pacific. It was the beginning of the era of canals and railroads, in fact there was no railroad when he was born and the first steamboat crossed the Atlantic Ocean only six years before. The railroads in his early days consisted of wooden or iron rails over which cars were drawn by horses at a speed of 5 or 6 miles an hour. During his life the telegraph was invented; coal was first successfully used as fuel; agricultural implements like the reaping machines, binders, mowers, threshing machines, and rotary printing presses and sewing machines, came into use; India rubber was found fit for commercial purposes; revolving pistols and improved firearms manufactured; coal oil lamps and illuminating gas generally adopted. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company in 1827 was using horse drawn cars. In 1830 only 23 miles of railroad was in operation in the United States; in 1850 when he began the agitation for the building of the Atlantic and North Carolina railroad from the Ocean to Goldsboro there were about 3,000 miles of railroads in the whole country. Ten years later there were more than 30,000 miles, all due to men of indomitable courage, foresight and ceaseless energy. Such men were the builders of the nation.
Probably no man has ever lived in New Bern who was more useful in developing certain features of our commercial life. He provided transportation by land and water. Undoubtedly the people of the east who now enjoy the fruits of his labor owe to him a debt of gratitude, which should never be forgotten. He lived to see the great celebration which was held in 1910 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the town. As a courtesy to him the parade was arranged to pass his house and he was visibly affected as he witnessed from his window the floats depicting the events in our history in which he had so large a share. A few months later, 13 of September, 1910 he died and a long life of honor and usefulness in the 86th year of his age.
[Copied from Whitford compiled by Vera H. Whitford, 1972, p.28-33]