Burlington is a city in Alamance and Guilford counties in the U.S. state of North Carolina. It is the principal city of the Burlington, North Carolina Metropolitan Statistical Area which encompasses all of Alamance County, in which most of the city is located. The population was 49,963 at the 2010 census, which makes Burlington the 17th largest city in North Carolina. The Metropolitan Statistical Area population was over 150,000 in 2010.
Alamance County was created when Orange County was partitioned in 1849. Early settlers included several groups of Quakers, many of which remain active in the Snow Camp area, German farmers, and Scots-Irish immigrants. Alamance County, where Burlington is located, is the site of several skirmishes that were part of the American Revolution. These include the War of the Regulation, which took place prior to the actual Revolution, when citizens rebelled against the corrupt British colonial government; the Battle of Lindley's Mill; the Battle of Clapp's Mill; and Pyle's Defeat.
The need of the North Carolina Railroad in the 1850s to locate land where they could build, repair and do maintenance on its track was the genesis of Burlington, North Carolina. The company selected a piece of land slightly west of present day Graham. On January 29, 1856, the last spikes were driven into the final tie of the North Carolina Railroad project, uniting the cities of Goldsboro and Charlotte by rail. The next day, the first locomotive passed along the new route. When the iron horse arrived in Alamance County, locals referred to it as "the eighth wonder of the world".
After twenty-five years of operations, the shops closed as most of the railroad's facilities. In 1886, the North Carolina Railroad Company transferred its operations to Spencer, North Carolina. The railroad offices and shops at Company Shops were closed. With the railroad shops no longer operated there, the citizens of Company Shops decided a new name was needed. Company Shops was reborn as Burlington on February 14, 1893. The city of Burlington was incorporated, and a charter was issued by the State Legislature.
Around the turn of the century, the great industrial progress began, and Alamance County made rich contributions to the industrial advancement of the country. Gen. Trollinger and E.M. Holt established small textile operations along the Haw River and Great Alamance Creek. In 1908, E.M. Holt built the first cotton mill in the South. From the establishment of this single factory, Alamance County grew to eventually operate 30 cotton mills and 10 to 15 yarn manufacturing plants employing 15,000 people. Eventually, the early textile venture of E.M. Holt became known all over the world as Burlington Industries, and is now headquartered in nearby Greensboro. Throughout this period, Burlington became a prosperous and vibrant little city filled with schools, churches, newspapers, telegraph and telephone lines, roads and a streetcar line; all in keeping with the latest "modern progress" of the times.
Though textiles continued to dominate the local economy well into the 1970s, the people of Burlington knew they could not survive on the back of a single industry, and the country's involvement in World War II brought important local economic changes. In 1942, the federal government purchased and leased a site to Fairchild Aircraft Corporation for the construction of test aircraft. After two years of production, the site was leased to Firestone Tire Company for the Army's tank rebuilding program. At the close of the war, the federal government chose not to leave, but continued utilizing the property for government contract business. This decision would bring Western Electric to town along with new employees from around the country and beyond. Their contracts ensured Burlington's placement on the "hit list" during the Cold War due to the manufacturing and testing of emerging defense technologies. Four decades later (1991), however, the doors to Western Electric (then Lucent Technologies) were locked, and another chapter of Burlington’s history was closed.
Throughout this century-and-a-half of economic change, Burlington grew, adapted and prospered. Originally the center of commerce for Company Shops, the downtown area still serves as the heart of today's community with financial services, government services, an expanded library, small shops, eateries and a restored theater. Downtown has also returned to its status as a major employment center, becoming the home to Laboratory Corporation of America, one of the world's largest biomedical testing firms and Burlington/Alamance County's largest employer.