Carolina Curious: Why Is Greensboro Called The Gate City?

Carolina Curious: Why Is Greensboro Called The Gate City?

11:48am Apr 28, 2017
Janet Echelman’s aerial sculpture at Greensboro's LeBauer Park, titled "Where We Met," is inspired by an old city railroad map. It's an ode to the reason Greensboro remains the Gate City. Credit: Bethany Chafin/WFDD
  • Janet Echelman’s aerial sculpture at Greensboro's LeBauer Park, titled "Where We Met," is inspired by an old city railroad map. It's an ode to the reason Greensboro remains the Gate City. Credit: Bethany Chafin/WFDD

  • This map shows the locations of North Carolina's railroads and textile mills circa 1896. It was the inspiration for Janet Echelman's sculpture. Photo Courtesy: Greensboro Historical Museum

  • Gov. John Motley Morehead lobbied for extensions to North Carolina's rail lines during his term in office, a move that lead to Greensboro becoming a gateway to the West and South. Photo Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

The nicknames of the cities of the Triad generally don’t take much thought to understand.

Winston-Salem is the Twin City. Two cities became one; makes sense.

High Point’s been known as “The Furniture Capital of the World.” That’s pretty self-explanatory.

But Greensboro listener Michelle Reyes wrote to us with a good question:

I wanted to know why Greensboro is referred to as 'The Gate City.'

The question about the Gate City moniker is among the most common, according to city historians. It's not abundantly clear where the name comes from, especially if you're a transplant, like Reyes is. But a lot of Greensboro natives appear to be unclear about the nickname, as well.

“When High Point Road changed their name to Gate City Boulevard, I was asking my coworkers and my new friends here, ‘what was Gate City?’ And no one could tell me the answer," Reyes says.

As you might expect, the answer has to do with transportation, and the nickname dates back to the 19th century. But let’s take a quick detour with Greensboro History Museum Director Carol Ghiorsi Hart. Because before Greensboro became a gateway, it had a more floral epithet.

“Nurseries were one of the major industries prior to the 1890s, so it wasn’t only that Greensboro had a lot of green space and flowers, but there was also that industry here," Hart says.

That's right. Once upon a time, Greensboro was “The City of Flowers” because of its nursery industry.

But as is the story with so many successful cities, new rail lines arrived and changed everything. Which is not to say trains weren’t there before. But by 1891, Greensboro was getting busy.

“One of the local newspapers started to refer to Greensboro as 'The Gate City,' meaning that Greensboro had now become a transportation center, a gateway to the West and the South,” Hart says.

It’s a catchy name, and accurate. According to Hart, by 1890, there were more than 60 trains passing through Greensboro each day. And when you’re centrally located and able to move so many people – and so much stuff – that’s a recipe for success.

“Because of the great transportation the railroads provided, manufacturing became larger and larger, and it became very attractive for people and investors to come in and make their factories here," according to Hart.

Even if the name didn’t come around until the 1890s, the Gate City moniker really could have been applied even earlier. Gov. John Motley Morehead lobbied for the extension of rail lines in the 1840s, and Greensboro's inclusion in those efforts had a lasting influence. Those lines were key during the Civil War, and the city was home to a World War II encampment because of Greensboro’s transportation options.

But all that was a long time ago. Is Greensboro still a Gateway City?

Hart says yes, but these days, she extends the name beyond transportation, calling it an intellectual gateway because of the tech businesses and universities serving the city. And she says it applies to other things too.

“Recently, in another direction, I saw Greensboro referred to as a global gateway for the role in immigration that Greensboro has played," Hart says.

Of course, the city’s transportation services remain. The rail is still there, as is the airport.

But if people want to see a more vivid reminder of the Gate City’s past, all they have to do is look up.

Janet Echelman’s aerial sculpture at the new LeBauer Park is inspired by an old city railroad map.

The sculpture resembles a colorful net. Thousands of knots and miles of twine, all meeting in the middle, the center representing Greensboro.

It's an ephemeral, floating reminder that the city remains a gateway to new stories yet to be told.

 
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