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HILLSVILLE — In attempting to write a book on a local mining magnate and land baron, Ned Irwin has gone against the wishes of one of the most powerful men that Hillsville ever produced.
George L. Carter made it as difficult as possible for following generations to understand his life and actions by leaving as little trace as possible, in death much as in life.
But Irwin continued the research of the late Ray Stahl and produced “The Last Empire Builder: A Life of George L. Carter, 1857 – 1936.”
The title is based on the headline for the industrialist’s obituary in The Washington Post.
Carter had a head for business and a work ethic to carry out his vision, Irwin said.
“He had a vision far ahead of his time, seeing things others around him could not,” the author said.
“Where others saw mountains as a barrier to trade, he envisioned a railroad that would shorten distances between the country’s interior and its coast and open up a region rich in natural resources to the world and provide economic opportunities for its citizens.
“I think this is probably what separates really great business figures from everybody else.”
Carter’s earliest recorded job involved going to work as a clerk at Johnson’s General Store in Hillsville.
Before his life ended, Carter had consolidated many mining operations in Southwestern Virginia, built a railroad through the mountainous terrain of the Coalfields, promoted the development of Tennessee cities, donated land and money to found East Tennessee University, acquired massive amounts of land in Virginia and West Virginia and created Coalwood, arguably the best known mining company town thanks to a series of memoirs by Homer Hickam.
Despite his business success, Carter remains somewhat of an enigma due to the fact he destroyed all records and asked family members to complete the job after his death.
Stahl and Irwin worked to gather all the information available about Carter from the public domain, Irwin told The Gazette. Stahl got interested in the history after he married a woman from Hillsville who could remember when the industrialist retired to the Carroll County town and took up residence in the remodeled home that his wife had inherited.
Stahl scrolled through countless pages of local newspapers to find source material on Carter and interviewed people who knew and worked for him — or, in some cases, their family members who heard the stories.
When Stahl’s health failed, Irwin — who worked at ETSU in Johnson City, Tenn. — took up the task.
Carter kept secrets in life, the research showed. He liked to hold business meetings at night when other people weren’t around, so few people knew what he was doing.
At times, Carter would take back alleys to get to his destination to avoid busy streets.
Irwin could see how it would have benefited Carter’s interests — if word didn’t get out about a real estate deal, Carter could avoid getting into a bidding war, for example.
Lots of times, Carter used business associates to carry out transactions to hide his intent.
“That’s another way he tried to mask what he was doing,” Irwin said. “It makes it difficult to do research on him.”
But Irwin liked the challenge and found it interesting what the public records did hold about Carter’s life.
When it came to the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio railroad, records were preserved by CSX’s takeover of the line that passes through Natural Tunnel in extreme Southwest Virginia.
One of the hardest periods to come up with any information for is Carter’s early life in Hillsville, where the researchers depended on peoples’ memories.
One of the things that Irwin found memorable about Carter’s character is his drive.
The author pointed to the industrialist’s success in building the Clinchfield railroad, an endeavor that others failed at because of the terrain.
After Carter created his line, it turned out he had built the most expensive railroad per mile around, Irwin recalled.
He was a “very determined man, also a very farsighted person. He built things to last.”
When rail companies started to double-stack containers in their trains, they didn’t have to change Carter’s tunnels to fit the taller loads, for example, Irwin said. That was different from most railroads of the day, which put the emphasis on completing lines quickly and cheaply.
Many people don’t know the extent to which Carter’s decisions continue to effect their lives today.
“The Last Empire Builder” tells a true rags-to-riches story of the firstborn of a family who had to help support his parents and his siblings, as his father became an invalid in the Civil War, Irwin recalled. Carter left school by 14 to take care of his family.
“It helped him survive as a business person because he had to do it on his own,” the author said. “He didn’t have anything given to him. He had to make his own way in the world.”
The book is now available at the Hale-Wilkinson-Carter Home and the Carroll County Historical Museum in Hillsville for $15.
Irwin will visit the Carroll County Courthouse Oct. 14 to speak about the book and the life of George L. Carter.
The author hopes he can help others learn about the kind of man that Carter was.
“He was a very complex man who’s difficult to sum up in a sentence,” Irwin said. “That’s why you have to read the book.”