One hundred years ago, “Doodlebugs” were commonly seen skittering about the countryside around Sanford.
They were odd-looking creatures – these gasoline-powered railcars that carried passengers and small freight from town to town beginning in the 1920s.
Sanford was once a manufacturing center for the Doodlebugs, contributing to the rich railroad heritage of Lee County.
The area’s earliest English-speaking settlers came from Scotland. They were so delighted when the Raleigh & Augusta Air Line Railroad (RAALR) came through town in 1871, that they named their community after Col. Charles Ogburn Sanford. He was the railroad’s chief civil engineer on the project.
Col. Sanford was flattered beyond belief and asked just one favor – that Sanford’s most prominent street be named in honor of his boss, Dr. William Joseph Hawkins, president of the railroad. (Town leaders obliged, naming one of the main streets Hawkins Avenue.)
The RAALR intersected the existing line of the Western Railroad Company of North Carolina that ran 43 miles from Fayetteville to the coal mines along the Deep River at Cumnock. This track had become fully operational by 1863.
Sanford eventually became the junction for four separate railroad companies, said Dan Robie of Kannapolis, a renowned railroad historian.
Especially significant was the Atlantic and Western (A&W) Railway, which was formed in 1899 by William Joseph (W. J.) Edwards of Sanford. The 25-mile line ran east out of Sanford to connect with Lillington on the Cape Fear River. The train stopped at 13 villages or crossroads in-between.
Harry Powell Edwards, who was born in 1885, the eldest child of W. J. and Catherine “Katie” Maglenn Edwards, grew up working on the railroad. By 1914, Harry Edwards was the general manager. It became readily apparent to him that was not cost effective to run a steam locomotive to carry passengers on a short-line track.
His answer was a gas-powered, self-propelled motor rail car that served as a coach for passenger travel. He started building them in 1917 at the A&W shops and incorporated the Edwards Railway Motor Car Company in 1921 in Sanford.
People started calling them Doodlebugs because they looked almost like insects as they doodled down the tracks at slow speeds.
In the 1920s, several railroads, mostly small regional and local networks, provided their main passenger services through Doodlebugs in a cost-cutting effort.
On some lines, passengers could flag one down in front of their homes. Doodlebugs even carried folks to their favorite fishing holes and home again for dinner.
The members of the Woman’s Club of Broadway, referred to one of Edwards’ railcars that made the local 8-mile run between Sanford and Broadway as “Dinky Doodlebug.”
Edwards turned out 199 Doodlebugs over a two-decade period, selling to 50 different railroads in 19 countries.
The Edwards company was acquired by Cummins Diesel Engine Corporation in 1940 and converted to the manufacture of wartime aircraft parts in 1942. The plant closed sometime later.
It turned out that Edwards had placed a lot of irons in the fire, so to speak. He was involved with multiple railroad-related ventures throughout the southern states.
The name Harry P. Edwards popped up in a 1941 edition of TIME magazine, this time associated with the “Mullet Line,” the train that ran through Morehead City, connecting Beaufort to Goldsboro.
Editors referred to Edwards as a “short-line specialist.”