As a region, the South is a premiere place in which to view the effects of the railroad as a technological force. After Reconstruction, the New South was wide open for the formation of new communities and class structures With its varying mixes of blacks and whites, immigrants and natives, Northerners and Southerners, the New South possessed the promise of change, opportunity, and industry
In his book,Promise of the New South, Edward Ayers speaks to the nation's perception of industry in the South, "To many people, Southern industry seemed more of a charade than an actuality. After enduring twenty years of exaggerated claims in the Manufacturer's Record , even a Southern trade paper could stand the puffery no longer: enterprises and undertakings which it has heralded to its advertisers and 'subscribers as having been started up in the various states of the South, had really been erected an put into operation,' the Southern Lumberman sneered, "there wouldn't be surface room for them to stand on, water enough under the earth to supply their boilers, nor room enough in the sky for the smoke from their chimneys.'" (Ayers 103)
The South realized it had its limits for "federal banking policy, railroad freight rates, absentee ownership, reliance on outside expertise, high interest rates, cautious state governments, lack of industrial experience, - all these hindered the growth of Southern industry" (Ayers 103) In addition to these hindrances, the South also had to compete with the established industries in the Northern states. Thus the pattern in industrial development did not parallel that of most Western countries in the nineteenth century. The majority of industrial workers labored in "forests and mines rather than factories. Those extractive industries became increasingly dominant throughout the New South era, outstripping the growth of more heavily mechanized enterprises" (Ayers 105) Though the South did not match Northern expectations, industrial development "touched the lives of a million people and "shaped the histories of hundreds of counties." Thus Ayers urges that the "impact of industry in the New South needs to be measured in people's experiences, not merely in numbers" (105).
Experiences and industry intertwined most in the formation of the new towns of the South. Many southerners abandoned their homes in rural areas to meet the excitement of opportunity in these towns. Often observers saw budding towns as "enclaves of industrial capitalism dropped among people acquainted only with age-old rural ways. The romanticization and ridicule of the mountaineers grow from a persistent refusal to recognize how much change worked throughout the hollows and along the rivers" (Ayers 117). This illustrates how much the "townspeople saw the operatives from the beginning as people unlike themselves, as helpless women, benighted rustics or failed farmers" (Ayers 113) Townspeople felt pity and the desire to bring rustics into the reality of the New South -- to modernize them as much as they had the landscape. The "operatives" however, saw their migration to the town as one of necessity and not necessarily progression. When questioned about their move to towns, many families responded: "because we lost our plantation"; "because my wife was lonely"; because the darkeys came in" (Ayers 113) Rural life's decline marked a new era in the New South. Southerners abandoned the countryside for the towns because they had nothing to lose. "'The towns are being recruited by those too poor to be able to live in the country, as well as by those too rich to be willing to live there,' a reporter for the Outlook discovered. As a result, the South's towns and cities were 'centers of both wealth and poverty'". (Ayers 62) Due to promotion and the indebtedness of the poor, new industries and the towns they created became more familiar as the South transformed itself.
The population of towns in the South grew by five million people between 1880 and 1910. The growth came fastest in the 1880's, slowed in the 1890's, then accelerated again in the first decade of the new century. By 1900, one of every six Southerners lived in a village or town. (Ayers 55) Each town possessed its own unique story or history but Southerners as a group lived through similar experiences: "[u]nmarried women, educated black people, and ambitious white men converged on towns and cities to fine opportunity they could not find in the countryside. Once in town, these people confronted innovations in technology, ideas and styles. While towns in the New South faced powerful economic constraints on their growth, they brought change that could have come in no other way" (Ayers 56).
Towns in the South were constructed for similar reasons: " to bring commodities together in central locations to be purchased by whole-salers, stored, sometimes repacked, and shipped" (Ayers 56). Most importantly, towns grew around railroad depots -- the technology which allowed the South to take their products to a larger market. No where is this more evident than in the growth of Roanoke, Virginia.