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Atlantic and East Carolina Railway: "The Tobacco Belt Route"

Published: October 10, 2023

By: Adam Burns

The Atlantic and East Carolina Railway was a short-line system that operated in North Carolina, United States. Established in 1906, it ran from a connection with the Atlantic Coast Line at Goldsboro to a terminus at Morehead City, location of a deepwater port.

The railway primarily transported agricultural products and seafood. In 1958, it was acquired by the Southern Railway, which later became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway.

Today, its original main line from Morehead City to Goldsboro is owned by the state of North Carolina with freight services maintained by Norfolk Southern.  In addition, Carolina Coastal handles local business at the Port of Morehead City.


The initiation of the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway is steeped in the annals of railroad expansion, marking an essential chapter in the mid-20th-century railroad history of the United States.

This railway found its roots in the coastal plains of North Carolina, threading a network of tracks that would go on to serve a broad spectrum of communities and industries.

The company's genesis began as the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad (A&NC), incorporated by the North Carolina Legislature on December 27, 1852.  The company was officially organized on January 20, 1854.  By the summer of 1858 the system (initially built to 5-foot gauge) had opened 94 miles from Morehead City to Goldsboro.

The A&NC operated independently until the original Norfolk & Southern acquired the road via lease in 1906.  When NS went into receivership following the Great Depression in 1932 it gave up its lease on the property in 1935. 

On August 1, 1939 the A&NC was acquired by the newly formed Atlantic and East Carolina Railway whose slogan was "The Tobacco Belt Route."

The A&EC's services spanned strategic locations such as Morehead City and Goldsboro, traversing through its chief yard at Newport and subsequently connecting to railway networks beyond state borders.

The Atlantic and East Carolina measured a remarkable 96 miles in total length. This extensive network was a testament to its comprehensive footprint across North Carolina, ensuring seamless connectivity between cities and providing essential services to industries and civilians alike.

At A Glance

Kinston, North Carolina
States Served
North Carolina
Dates Of Operation
1858 - 1958
Formation Date
August 1, 1939
Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad Company (1852)
Route Miles
96 (1952)
Track Gauge
4 Feet, 8 ½ Inches
Principal Lines

Goldsboro - Morehead City, North Carolina

Havelock - Cherry Point, North Carolina

Reporting Mark
Southern Railway

At its core, the A&EC's purpose entailed much more than simply transportation. As an integral component of the state's infrastructure, it facilitated the swift movement of goods, people, and information, knitting together various communities across the terrain and catalyzing economic growth in the region.

The freight handled by the railroad depicted a rich tapestry of the local economy. This integrated freight service catered to a range of industries, hauling timber, coal, and a multitude of agricultural products. 

Passenger Trains

The A&EC's passenger services were modest and offered to connect in conjunction with Southern's trains at Goldsboro.  The railroad operated services daily from Goldsboro Union Station to Morehead City.  Service was finally discontinued in 1951.

Southern Railway

Eclipsing its independent operations, the A&EC was acquired by the Southern in 1958. This monumental transition marked the beginning of a new chapter in the railway's history, under the auspices of a larger and more extensive railroad network.

The Southern was one of the most successful railroads in the nation, running a highly efficient and profitable system throughout most of the 20th century.

System Map (1952)


The narrative of the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway took another turn in 1982, when the Southern Railway combined its operations with the Norfolk Western to form Norfolk Southern.

Norfolk Southern, incorporating the operations of the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway, continued providing vital services across the region, exemplifying the resilience and adaptability of the railroad industry.

As time rolled on, the Atlantic and East Carolina  underwent further transformation. On September 29, 1989 the line was acquired by the North Carolina Railroad, a wholly owned subsidiary of the state.


Today, the spirit of the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway lives on as it continues to play a pivotal role in North Carolina's infrastructure, transporting diverse freight and bolstering the regional economy.

The Atlantic and East Carolina Railway, although no longer operating independently, left behind a substantial legacy. Its impact on the communities it served, the industries it facilitated, and the broader transportation landscape of North Carolina was profound and manifold.

Cities like Morehead City and Goldsboro owe part of their growth and prosperity to the connectivity offered by the railroad, which helped shape these cities into dynamic hubs of commerce and community.

The A&EC offered more than just routes for freight and passengers. It provided opportunities for growth, commerce, and cultural interchange, fostering a spirit of unity across the region.

The railway was a lifeline for industries such as lumber, coal, and agriculture. The transport of these goods facilitated the development of local industries and played an integral role in the economy of North Carolina.

Over its operational years, the Atlantic and East Carolina witnessed countless stories of progress, innovation, and transformation. Its trains and stations were the setting for heartfelt reunions, teary farewells, as well as the transport of goods that fueled commerce and prosperity.

The tale of the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway, from its inception to its absorption under various companies, narrates a journey of resilience, adaptability, and evolution. With each transition, the railway continued to serve its community, enriching lives along its steel tracks.

The loss of steam and the advent of diesel and electric trains mirror our progress as a society, while the enduring tracks of the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway still transport us back to an era of substantial growth and transformation.

The lines traced by the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway across North Carolina embody the intricate planning and monumental efforts that shaped its history. Every rail, tie, and spike speaks volumes about the craftsmanship and logistical feats that shaped this essential transport framework.

The legacy of the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway is not just about transportation. It encapsulates an era of economic expansion, community unity, and cultural interchange. Its ripple effects continue to be felt, shaping the character of North Carolina and its residents.


The Atlantic and East Carolina Railway has indeed left an indelible mark on North Carolina's landscape. It symbolizes a significant part of the nation's historical narrative.

As the predecessor operation to the Norfolk Southern, it serves as a timeless reminder of the golden era of railroads and their vital role in shaping our communities and economy.

It's fascinating to think that the tracks laid by the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway still hum with activity under the banner of NS, continuing the legacy of long-established rail transit routes.

The veins of tracks spread across the state of North Carolina, originally laid down as the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway, are more than just steel and wood. They represent the hopes, efforts, and aspirations of the communities they connected.

Ultimately, whether known as the Atlantic and East Carolina Railway, the Southern Railway, or Norfolk Southern, the operations along this 96-mile length of track remain a vibrant thread in the rich tapestry of both North Carolina and America’s vast railroad history.


  • Murray, Tom. Southern Railway. St. Paul: Voyageur Press, 2007.
  • Schafer, Mike. More Classic American Railroads. Osceola: MBI Publishing, 2000.


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