Rediscovering the Confederate Treasury A Mountain Island, North Carolina History
As collectors we collect for many reasons: to fill an album page, the challenge of the hunt, appreciation of value, the beauty of the art or, in my case, the history surrounding the items. A recent move to a new location provided me the opportunity to explore the postal history of my new environs. What a surprise I uncovered as I dug deep into the history of my new home place - a small lake north of Charlotte with a postal history just waiting to be told.
In May of 1854, John Tate was appointed Postmaster of the Town of Mountain Island, located on a peninsula created by the Catawba River in the northeast portion of Gaston County bordering Mecklenburg County. The history of the community starts a few years earlier.
The first Gaston County textile mill came the same year Gaston became a county and, like the first settlers, it came on a wagon from the north - northern North Carolina. Thomas Randolph Tate bought property on Mountain Island and set up a mill. He called it appropriately the Mountain Island Mill. Tate had bought the Mount Heccla Mill in Greensboro from Henry Humphreys, his father-in-law, who built the mill in 1828. As fuel became scarce, Tate first moved the building to a location near a major water source, then to Mountain Island where water from the Catawba River produced steam to power the machinery. The mill had looms and spindles - a spinning and weaving operation for cotton and wool cloth.
The Mountain Island Mill rose four stories high out of the ground near the river. It was built of red bricks purchased from Mountain Island Manufacturing Company, which made them from the red clay. Construction was completed and the machinery was in place by the fall of 1848, when the machines began to hum and the first bolts of cloth rolled out of the mill.
In 1852, about six years after the Mountain Island Mill began operation, John Lineberger, Caleb Lineberger, Labon Lineberger, Jonas Hoffman, John Clemmer and Moses Rhyne opened the Woodlawn Company below Spencer’s Mountain on the South Fork near what is now McAdenville.
These mills would begin the textile future of Gaston County.
The Mountain Island mill site was chosen for two reasons: one was that there was a partially constructed canal, originally intended to convey cotton to Charleston but which could be easily used for a race; the other was that water power was cheaper than steam. The name was chosen from the little mountain, now almost covered by water, and from Mt. Hechler Mill at Greensboro from which the machinery was moved and started up in its new home during the fall of 1849.
Mr. Tate was a son-in-law of Henry Humphrey who erected and operated the Mt. Hechler Mill at Greensboro. It was largely through marriage with Mr. Humphrey’s daughter that Tate came into possession of it.
Short hours were unknown. In those days the mill was operated from sunup to sundown. Men’s wags were from twenty-five to forty cents a day. Women received the same for weaving. The pay of small boys was from five to twenty-five cents. There was no age limit and free schools were unknown, thus there was nothing else for children to do but work.
Heavy sheeting was manufactured in the plant. It was sold mostly in North Carolina and Tennessee. The white sheeting was used for men’s underclothes. Dyes were made from copperas or maple bark or sumac berries to color the cloth for women’s dresses or other uses.
During the Civil War, the mill started a wool department and made blankets and southern gray for soldiers’ uniforms. Negro slave labor was used to run the mill during the war.
The mill closed down at the end of the war and remained closed until 1872. In 1894 the Tate’s sold the mill to William J. Hopper who operated the mill until 1916 when a great flood destroyed the entire plant.
A review of the Postmaster of Mountain Island post office indicates the mill played an important roll in its operation. John Tate was Postmaster through the Civil War. Ferdinand Tate was appointed in 1878, Frank Hooper in 1884 and a James Tate in 1904. On April 30, 1910 the post office was closed for the last time.
Postmasters of Mountain Island:
John Tate - 5 May 1854
John Tate, CSA - 6 Jul 1861
CSA office closed on or before - 30 Apr 1865
Federal office discontinued - 4 Mar 1867
Purnell P. Zimmerman - 9 Jun 1875
Ferdinand A. Tate - 3 Oct 1878
Felix A. Savin - 28 Apr 1884
Frank B. Hooper - 1 May 1884
William T. Jordan - 1 Dec 1884
James E. Tate - 26 Oct 1904
Belle Miller - 3 May 1906
William O. Gardner - 8 Feb 1907
Discontinued - 30 Apr 1910
The story now needs to turn south about 10 miles to Charlotte and return to the Civil War era. A large part of the Confederate Navy Yard was moved from Norfolk Virginia to Charlotte early in the war. Charlotte was selected because of its railroad facilities. It was a wise choice since the Charlotte yard suffered less interruption from the movement of the enemy than any of the other naval ordinance plants. By war’s end, there were 300 employed at the Navy yard. Throughout the war, this plant produced shafting for propellers of steamers, wrought iron projectiles and various kinds of ordinance equipment and ammunition.
Charlotte’s most unforgettable war days were those just preceding and immediately following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
When Jefferson Davis anticipated the imminent fall of Richmond, he sent his wife and children to Charlotte where he thought they might dwell safely and comfortably until he could join them. At Charlotte they were house guests of a local merchant named Weill. Subsequently, Mrs. Davis and her party moved into a furnished house. This event is described in a letter written by Mrs. John Wilkes which reads, “The house was located on the northeast corner of Brevard and 5th Streets. Such of us as could spare any furniture sent what we could to furnish the house. I sent her bread, milk and pantry supplies, as did many other housekeepers.”
When Mrs. Davis heard of Lee’s surrender and that President Davis was making his way south, she became frantic with alarm. When she observed the troops which had brought treasury funds from Richmond to Charlotte sometime before, preparing to move them to a place of greater safety, she decided to join them and left Charlotte two days before her husband’s arrival. She wrote her husband frequently. A copy of one of these letters has been preserved and illuminates the situation that existed in Charlotte at that time:
My own dear Bunny,
Since my arrival here I have been so busy as to have only the evening to write in, and then but one room where the children most did congregate, so I have written you but one disjointed letter.
The news of Richmond came upon me like the “abomination of desolation” the loss of Selma like the blackness thereof. Since your telegram upon your arrival at Danville, we have nothing except the wildest rumors, all, however, discouraging.
I, who know that your strength when stirred up, is grand, and that you can do with a few what others have failed to do with many, am awaiting prayerfully the advent when it is God’s will to delivery us through his appointed agent. I trust it may be you, as I believe it is.
It would comfort me greatly if you could only find an opportunity to write me a full, long letter. As soon as we are established here I am going to leave Mrs. Chesnut with the children and bring Li Pie [evidently the baby] to see you. The gentlemen I have seen here are exceedingly kind, and have offered me every civility in their power.
The surgeon general was also very kind in his offers of service. Colonel Johnston, with his wife, called to see me. Mrs. Joe Johnston is living here with the cashier of the bank, and family, and keeps a pretty fancy carriage and horse. I haven’t seen her but I hear she is going out of town before long to some watering place or other. Mrs. Semmes went off yesterday for the South. I did not see her. The Wigfalls are staying, I believe, with Mrs. Johnston, also. They arrived yesterday.
I hear a funny account of Wigfall’s interview with Beauregard. It seems he went to see him on his way to this place and when the news of the evacuation of Richmond came, and that the enemy had not yet entered town, the general said, “Oh! They do not understand the situation. It is, or ought to be a plan of Lee’s to keep between Richmond and the enemy. If Grant attempted to throw troops between his army and Richmond, Lee can whip them in detail.”
I cannot judge the moral effect of the fall of Richmond. The people here were about as low as they could be before, as I infer from little things, but, upon the whole I do not think the shock is as great as I expected.
We had a digest of your address to the people today, and I could not make much of it, except an encouraging exhortation. Am anxious to see the whole thing. Numberless surmises are hazarded here as to your future destination and occupation, but I know that wherever you are and in whatever engaged it is an efficient manner for the country. The way things look now the trans-Mississippi seems our ultimate destination.
Though I know you do not like interference, let me entreat you not to send B. B. to command here. I am satisfied that the country will be ruined by its intestine feuds if you do so. If your friends thought it best I should feel helpless, but resigned; but even those who hope for favors in that event deprecate it for you. If I am intrusive forgive me for the sake of the love which impels me, but pray long and fervently before you decide to do it.
Mrs. Chesnut wrote me a most affectionate letter from Chester today. She is staying in two rooms very badly furnished, and furnished with food by her friend there�”
Much of the money that was stored in Charlotte was taken further south but some of it, along with the money that belonged to the branch bank at Charlotte, was removed to a spot about eighteen miles from town and there buried. The details of the search for a safe spot, the removal of some 3,000 pounds of gold bullion are recorded in the diary of J. H. Carson, grandfather of James H. Carson and McAlister Carson, Sr., of Charlotte.
President Davis rode on horseback into Charlotte on the afternoon of April 18, 1865. He was accompanied by three aides and members of his cabinet. Arrangements had been made with private families in Charlotte for accommodating him and members of his cabinet.
Upon his arrival to Charlotte President Davis gave an impromptu speech to the citizens who had gathered around him.
While the President spoke, John C. Courtnay, from the telegraph office, walked rapidly through the crowd and handed him a telegram, which he held unopened until his talk was finished. Then he silently read the dispatch. “Can this be true? This is dreadful! It is horrible! Can it be really true?” he exclaimed. The dispatch reported the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
President Davis and his cabinet made their headquarters during their stay at the branch of the Bank of North Carolina, located on the west side of Tryon Street, midway between Trade and Fourth Streets. The final meeting of the whole cabinet was held on April 20, 1865, at the home of Mr. William Phifer. This location was made necessary because of the illness of Mr. Trenholm, Secretary of the Treasury who was Mr. Phifer’s guest.
On April 21 the President and much of his cabinet moved further south as Major Erastus C. Moderwell, 12th Ohio Cavalry, moved into Charlotte.
Now the Mountain Island plot thickens.
Following the July 1916 flood that brought an end to the hub of village life that existed around the Mountain Island Mill, the Catawba Manufacturing Company built a steam plant on the banks of the Catawba River to produce electricity. Within a decade, Duke Power purchased the land from the Catawba Manufacturing Company and began the construction of a hydroelectric dam at the site where the mill once stood.
In 1923, the completion of the dam across the Catawba River created Mountain Island Lake. The damming of the Catawba River created more than sixty miles of shoreline and a surface area of more than 3,235 acres. It also meant that the ancient Catawba Indian grave mounds, farm fields and the land where the Mountain Island Mill village sat were now flooded. The Duke Power archives have photos of the homes from the mill villages being both moved and destroyed as the dam was being built. Yet, within a short time, another village was established on the peninsula.
In October 1929, the day before the stock market crash, the first two units of the Riverbend Steam Plant began operation and a new era began by the river.
The Riverbend Duke Power village was a uniquely American community. Once again, an atmosphere of community was created on the land. There were 136 individual houses in the Riverbend Village. Duke Power supplied coal, electricity, garbage pick-up, general yard and roadwork for the homes.
No post office was to open again.
The neighborhood was integrated. Three to four African-American families lived in the village. Jim Harvey Walls was a favorite neighbor. The children called him “Uncle Jim.” He had been born a slave and as a result, Jim Harvey Walls had no idea how old he was.
Uncle Jim loved to tell stories to the children; among his stories was a tale of buried gold. He always began the story in the same way:
“I remember that day as if it was yesterday. My poppa and me spotted a troop of Confederate soldiers coming from the direction of Charlotte. They were escorting a horse drawn wagon down Rozzelles Ferry Road. There were about a dozen soldiers on horse back riding on each side of the wagon. They were in a hurry to get where they were going. The wagon the horses were pulling was so heavy that I could see where its wheels cut deep ruts in the dirt road.
“I saw them turn off the road toward where the steam plant sits today.
“They were gone a pretty long time,” Then he would half-whisper, “long enough to bury something.”
“Then, an hour or so later, they came flying back down the road. They were riding like the Devil himself was chasing them and they didn’t slow down when they got to the big road where they turned towards Lincolnton. The wagon was empty this time and it was flying all about behind them like a June bug on a string.”
He would lean close to the kids and say, “Some say they buried gold that day and some say the gold is still buried deep in the ground. It could be buried beneath your feet where you are standing right now.”
As I look out my dining room window each day, I wonder, is the gold sitting out there on the island or is it covered by the millions of gallons of water that is now the water supply for the City of Charlotte. Perhaps one day some treasure hunter will come rediscover the gold. Until then, I’ll just have to be satisfied with the small bits of postal history that remain.