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Downtown Deadwood

125 Years Ago in the Great North State...

It’s late afternoon, mid-June 1896. Joe Houser and Bob Cline, two rootless rounders on a multi-county mission of mayhem, whoop it up as their stolen thoroughbreds gallop southeast down a red clay roadway past Guilford College into Pomona. They're headed to the small town of Greensboro, North Carolina, a bustling whistlestop that would have been the perfect location for a casino site if such activity had been legal.

The pair slow to a trot as the road we now know as Spring Garden comes to within calling distance of railroad lines spidering out across the state in all directions. It’s the great getaway... the night before Cline was scooping up piles of cash while Houser pointed his hogleg at a clerk in the Forsyth County Postmaster General’s office, making off with nigh on $30.00 in quarters, nickels and dimes.

Dismounting on South Elm Street in front of Clegg’s European and American House, adjacent to the tracks, the outlaws are surprised to see Greensborough experiencing a period of rapid expansion. Thirty-one freight trains are gliding the High Iron into town daily, workers loading and unloading boxcars by the hundreds, a mighty means of distribution fueling a manufacturing boom led by the Cone brothers who are greatly expanding operations with their newly operational Proximity Cotton Mill while construction is well underway for the Revolution plant nearby.

The city is a major brokerage outlet for insurance and tobacco, largest manufacturer of cigars in the nation, there are flour and grain mills, buggy factories, brick yards and 3 iron foundries mass producing stoves, plows and turbines; rail spurs connect their warehouses to the mainlines. Every day 29 routes comprised of some 200 passenger coaches pull up to the wooden platforms near the corner of South Elm and Depot (now McGee). The aroma of fresh cut and drying tobacco leaf, pine, manure, urine and sweat likely confounded genteel country folk used to lilac and honeysuckle in the air while coal ash and silt generated by torqued-up steam engines thicken the summer breeze.

Bullwhackers seeking their fortunes at one of the many gold mines in the vicinity and dozens of Confederate veterans preparing for a reunion parade in Richmond in 2 weeks are converging this day on Greensboro’s rail hub, causing quite a commotion. Despite this influx of strangers, Officer Scott of the Greensboro Police Department notices something not quite right about Houser and Cline. Covered with dust, they must have come a long way at a fast clip, then paid for passage on the Eight-O-Clock to Salisbury with small change from an official Post Office transfer envelope.

Officer Scott watches from afar as the two scallawags lead their horses from the ticket office down an incline into Tatum’s Livery across Depot Street (the grassy knoll behind Natty Greene’s today). Following an inebriated gang of Johnny Rebs, they walk half a block up to the corner at South Elm and into Gorrell’s Saloon.

As the Sun Sets Slowly in the West...

South Elm has long been home to a robust service based economy but a sense of permanence is taking hold in anticipation of not just a new century but a new millennium. Replacing the rambling, low-rise wooden structures that once defined the area, 2 & 3-story mixed-use structures enshrined in locally sourced brick are being erected on both sides of the tracks. Staircases are so unfamiliar to the masses the city’s most popular weekly, The Greensboro Patriot, published an article on how to walk up them.

Despite Greensboro’s reputation as being populated by “genial, industrious, sober and thrifty” souls, just a short downhill stroll from the train depot is what fly-by-nighters are calling ‘Saloon Row.’ First stop is Robert Gorrell’s place on the corner at 341 South Elm; Collins & Cantieri and E.G. West are pouring shots just a few doors north at 329 and 327; two more bars beckon directly across the street at 334 and 344. Thirty-five year old Gorrell shares the ground floor with John Jones’ grocery store, Gorrell’s door looks to the corner, Jones faces South Elm proper. Upstairs is occupied by a hotel with an entrance facing Depot Street.

Recently completed, what’s become known as the Jones Building (Natty Greene’s today) reflects the architectural style prevalent across an aggressive expansion of South Elm taking place, a study in bold austerity with whimsical upturned brick accent grooves, white Mt. Airy granite for top and bottom window sills. The sleek wood and glass first floor entryway sports a distinctly modern look with subconscious Italianate touches. A third floor will be added soon, crowned with an ornately carved Romanesque cornice.

Gorrell’s Saloon is the fanciest Joe Houser and Bob Cline have ever seen, electrical fans descend from high wood-slatted ceilings, large picture windows look out over an unrelenting cacophony of clattering carts navigating the Belgian stone covered roadway, the hollow wail of arriving steam trains coupled with the aggressive huffing from coal fired boilers as fierce Iron Horses gallop from the gate, sending grey plumes towards the heavens, leaving a sooty discharge in their wake. There’s the clamor of hammering and bricklayers at work, metal forging and horses being shoed, all of this occasionally drowned out by the teeth-rattling metal-on-metal grinding of a locomotive being rerouted on a turntable just up the hill.

Sauntering through swinging doors and across sawdust covered floor the desperados remove their hats, placing them on the freshly shellacked oak bar they order “Bourbon and Branch Water.” Leaning on a corner of the bar to their left, Robert Gorrell’s lips move only slightly as he pours over a newspaper in front of him. Alongside recipes, comings and goings, and testimonials for William Jennings Bryant’s presidential campaign are ads for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for teething children that, “soothes the child, softens the gums, allays all pain.” Yeah, morphine will have that effect. The American Medical Association will give that toddler roofie another name—“Baby Killer.”

COMING SOON... PART TWO!
A Daring Escape and Pursuit by Railroad

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Once considered Greensboro’s unsavory outskirt, Hamburger Square is now the city’s heartbeat, its pride and joy. Anchoring that corridor is an historic cornerstone erected when that area of town may as well have been Downtown Deadwood

by Billy Ingram

 

 

 

 


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