Murdoch, William (1811-1893)
- Salisbury, North Carolina
- Raleigh, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
Gothic Revival; Greek Revival; Italianate
William Murdoch (1811-1893), stonemason, contractor, and bridge builder, was one of a group of Scots-born stonemasons and stonecutters who came to North Carolina in the 1830s to work on the North Carolina State Capitol and later developed respected careers in the state, achieving prominence in their adopted communities. Murdoch’s career as a stonemason and builder in North and South Carolina covered more than forty years. After a period of moving from one major construction project to another, he settled in Salisbury, where he was a leading contractor and manufacturer from the 1850s onward.
William Murdoch, the son of Alexander Murdoch, was born at the Knowe, near Ochiltree, in Ayrshire, Scotland. After gaining an education and learning the stonemason’s craft, he is said to have left Scotland at about age 21 and come to the United States. He was one of the many Scots, Irish, and English artisans recruited in New York and Philadelphia to come to work on the State Capitol in Raleigh, where there was a constant demand for skilled stoneworkers. Murdoch appeared in the time book for stonecutters in November 1834, a few months after the September arrival of fellow Scotsman David Paton as superintendent of the stonework. He may have been recruited by Paton himself to come to the job. The stonecutters and stonemasons, who numbered as many as 77 at about this time, earned wages that varied over time from $2 to $2.50 per day. As early as February 18, 1836, the stonecutters were petitioning for pay rates equivalent to their brethren in other places and threatening to stop work; William Murdoch was one of the long list of men who signed the statement. He appeared regularly on the lists of stonemasons in 1837 and early 1838. On February 23, 1838, a committee of artisans submitted another request for better wages for stonecutters and masons—$2.25 per day—comparable to other major public works such as the Arsenal in Fayetteville. Murdoch’s last appearance in the capitol workmen list was on February 22, 1838, and he evidently proceeded to Fayetteville, perhaps in search of better pay.
According to Salisbury memoirist Hope Summerell Chamberlain, whose family knew Murdoch as a close friend, an important event in his life was his execution of a unique feature of the capitol: “He was the man who saw to the placing of the stone staircase in the Capitol at Raleigh, the one which architects come to look at, the one which is supported at the wall but has the outer edge free.” Her statement refers to the pair of curved pen-check stairs between the second and third floors of the capitol, which employ a sophisticated Scottish tradition of construction otherwise unknown in North Carolina. Edinburgh stonemason and architect Paton was acquainted with this method and surely planned and superintended its construction, but Murdoch’s identification with it throughout his life indicates that the stair construction was a significant personal accomplishment.
While engaged at the capitol, Murdoch met Sarah S. Colburn, the sister of fellow artisan, stonemason and quarryman Eleazar Colburn. The couple was married in Raleigh on January 16, 1838, and their first child, Miriam C., was born in Raleigh on December 22, 1838. Their other children were Helen Peden (1841-1843); William A. (b. 1842 or 1843); and Lemuel C. (b. 1846).
The broad outlines of Murdoch’s career from his work at Raleigh into the early 1850s are traced in a “Memorial Sketch” published by the Rev. Jethro Rumple in the Salisbury Carolina Watchman on January 11, 1894. Rumple, a local historian and longtime pastor of the First Presbyterian Church where Murdoch was a member and ruling elder, knew Murdoch well for more than 30 years. According to family tradition, Murdoch left Raleigh for Fayetteville to work on the United States Arsenal, where William Bell, another Scotsman, was architect and superintendent. From Fayetteville he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was engaged as a mason on the Arsenal Academy and Fort Sumter. From Charleston he went to Graniteville, South Carolina, to build the great Graniteville Cotton Mill (1846-1848), a 2-story mill of white granite measuring 350 feet by 50 feet, center of a planned industrial village.
During the late 1840s and the early 1850s, Murdoch found opportunities in the era’s burgeoning railroad construction, chiefly in planning and building stone bridges. According to memoirist Chamberlin, “It was said that no bridge-piers planned by him and built under his supervision were ever swept out in a freshet.”In 1850 he and his family were listed in the York district of South Carolina, and he gave his profession as “bridge builder.” He built bridges for the Charlotte and Columbia Railroad, the Union and Spartanburg Railroad, and other lines. It was probably railroad construction that brought the experienced stonemason and bridge builder to Salisbury by 1852: by the early 1850s the North Carolina Rail Road Company was constructing the portion of its Raleigh-Charlotte route through Rowan and nearby counties. The company’s Contractors Ledger recorded payments to William Murdoch between May 1852 and September 1855 totaling $66,616.31 for masonry work, with notations for four specific bridges: the Yadkin River Railroad Bridge at the border of Rowan and Davidson counties; the Rich Fork Bridge and Abbott’s Creek Bridge in Davidson County; and the Rocky River Bridge in Cabarrus County.
During 1856 and 1857, Murdoch was building bridges for the Western North Carolina Railroad. To complement its Raleigh to Charlotte route, the WNCRR was planned to branch out west from Salisbury to Asheville, with construction beginning at Salisbury. In October 1856 Murdoch was paid $6,105, and in 1857 he received $8,004.65 for his work on four bridges. His best known bridge was the stone Grant’s Creek Viaduct (1857), which brought him local fame and continues in use to the present. The annual report of the WNCRR described the viaduct as “substantially built of granite of superior quality,” measuring 166 feet long and 33 feet above the surface of the water. “The water-way consists of two arched spans, of fifty feet each, resting upon abutments with an intermediate Pier and each being the segment of a circle of 36 feet radius.”
During the 1850s Murdoch and his family established themselves in Salisbury, where railroad construction had infused new energy and promise for economic growth. Murdoch became a leading citizen with a multiplicity of interests, taking advantage of the potential offered by the railroad he had helped build. He joined the First Presbyterian Church in 1852 and by 1859 became a ruling elder. In 1856 he and another Scotsman, James G. Cairns, went into partnership as Murdoch and Cairns, operating the Salisbury Planing Mill, Sash Factory, and Lumber Yard on West Hill. Such manufacturing enterprises sprang up quickly where railroads made them potentially profitable by expanding their market range. In October, 1856, the firm won a prize at the North Carolina State Fair for its products, which included gate palings, panel doors, window frames, and sash blinds. In 1857 the firm advertised in the Carolina Watchman, the Lexington Flag, and the Greensboro Patriot for their mill and factory where they were prepared to “furnish first quality lumber dressed, or will Plane, Tongue, and Groove plank furnished by others.” They made all kinds of sash, doors, frames, blinds, moldings, and could do scroll sawing, running in wood or iron, and general blacksmithing. They had “first rate workmen from Baltimore” and guaranteed their work “suitable for first class houses.” In 1858, the partnership was dissolved and Cairns moved to Tennessee.
Expanding the scope of his business, Murdoch soon took on a new partner, a Mr. Darby, and in April 1858 the firm of Murdoch, Darby, and Company advertised its capacity to take contracts for buildings and to furnish plans if desired. In the September 21, 1858, Carolina Watchman, a review of local businesses encouraged the public to call “on Murdoch, Darby & Co., for houses, built by magic.” Little is known of Darby or whether it was he who added the design and building capacity. Although the firm probably built numerous structures, the only building with which Murdoch, Darby, and Company is associated is Thyatira Presbyterian Church in the Mill Bridge community in Rowan County. Church records document the company’s construction of the building. They also show that by November 8, 1858, William Raeder was associated with the firm, and by September 1859 the firm had become Murdoch and Raeder, under whose name the church was completed in 1860. Also in 1859, Murdoch and Raeder were paid for work by the WNCRR from its “Depot and Station Account.” Raeder was an employee of the WNCRR as early as 1856-1857, joined with Murdoch briefly, and then left the state before the Civil War.
By 1860 William Murdoch was a substantial citizen of Salisbury. The census of that year listed him as a stonemason, and the head of a household that included his wife and their three children, plus two other persons: W. A. Eudy, age 11, and S. H. Wiley, age 30, a schoolteacher with a personal estate of $12,195. Murdoch owned real estate valued at $10,090, plus personal property valued at $42,430, which included eight slaves. He was well respected as a builder, as evidenced by his selection as an arbitrator in a suit by contractor John W. Conrad (Conrad Family) against the trustees of the Concord (Presbyterian) Female College (Mitchell College) in Statesville.
After the Civil War, Murdoch continued as a bridge builder and contractor, though on a reduced scale. He is credited with masonry work for the Savannah River Bridge near Augusta, Georgia; the Deepwater Bridge over the French Broad River; and the Chester and Lenoir Railroad Bridge carrying the Chester and Lenoir Railroad over the Catawba River near Hickory. In November 1868 Murdoch and his wife sold their house and lot on West Bank Street in Salisbury to their son-in-law, Samuel Henderson Wiley, who had married their daughter, Miriam, on July 4, 1861. Wiley became one of Salisbury’s leading businessmen and a director of the WNCRR. Following a plan the families had developed, they replaced the old frame house in 1869 with a large and elaborate brick residence with Italianate features and a rooftop cupola. The house, known as the Murdoch-Wiley House, became the home of both families. It is believed that Murdoch took a role in its planning and construction.
Listed as a builder in the 1870 census, Murdoch kept a hand in the building trade during the 1870s and 1880s, but he increasingly gave his time to First Presbyterian Church, especially the Sunday school, and to his horticultural interests, as evidenced by the greenhouse and gardens at his residence. By 1880 he identified himself as a farmer. He also enjoyed travel and made two trips to Europe. His last known work in stone was the Hot Springs Bath and Swimming Pool at Hot Springs, North Carolina, a resort at the western terminus of the WNCRR. At his death his pastor, Mr. Rumple, wrote, “It has been said that no one ever spoke ill of Mr. Murdoch. I believe this is true to as great an extent as to any man who ever lived in Salisbury.”
- Asheville Spectator, Aug. 19, 1858.
- James S. Brawley, Old Rowan Views and Sketches (1959).
- James S. Brawley, Rowan County: A Brief History (1974).
- Carolina Watchman, Jan. 8, 1857; Apr. 14, 1857; Apr. 20, 1858; Sept. 21, 1858; Jan. 11, 1894.
- Hope Summerell Chamberlain, This Was Home (1938).
- Greensboro Patriot, June 11, 1858.
- Davyd Foard Hood, The Architecture of Rowan County North Carolina: A Catalogue and History of Surviving 18th, 19th, and Early 20th Century Structures (1983).
- North Carolina Rail Road Company, Contractor’s Ledge, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- North Carolina Standard, June 9, 1858.
- Rowan County Records (Deeds), North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- State Capitol Construction Records, Treasurer’s and Comptroller’s Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Thyatira Presbyterian Church, Church Records and Muniments, Mill Bridge, North Carolina.
- Western North Carolina Rail Road Company Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Dates:Ca. 1884Location:Hickory, Catawba CountyStreet Address:Across Catawba River, Hickory vicinity, NCStatus:UnknownType:TransportationImages Puslished In:Matthew C. Bumgarner, Legacy of the Carolina & North-Western Railway (1996).
- Dates:1856-1857Location:Salisbury, Rowan CountyStreet Address:Across Grant's Creek, Salisbury, NCStatus:UnknownType:PublicImages Puslished In:Davyd Foard Hood, The Architecture of Rowan County North Carolina: A Catalogue and History of Surviving 18th, 19th, and Early 20th Century Structures (1983).
- Dates:Ca. 1884-1886Location:Hot Springs, Madison CountyStreet Address:Hot Springs, NCStatus:No longer standingType:RecreationalNote:The thermal springs site is one of the oldest known health resorts in the state, used by the Cherokees long before white travelers heard about the springs. Located on the Buncombe Turnpike, then the Western North Carolina Railroad, the community first named Warm Springs had a grand hotel by the mid-19th century. The hotel burned in 1884 and was replaced by 1886, accompanied by elaborate marble-lined bathing and swimming facilities. In 1886 discovery of a hotter spring led to the name change to Hot Springs.
- Dates:1869Location:Salisbury, Rowan CountyStreet Address:203 W. Bank St., Salisbury, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
Davyd Foard Hood, The Architecture of Rowan County North Carolina: A Catalogue and History of Surviving 18th, 19th, and Early 20th Century Structures (1983).
- Contributors:William W. Birth, superindendent, masonry department (1833-1834); Thomas Bragg, Sr., supervisor (1830s); John J. Briggs, carpenter (1830s); Thomas H. Briggs, Sr., carpenter (1830s); Alexander Jackson Davis, architect (1830s); William Drummond, supervisor (1830s); Robert Findlater, stonecutter (1830s); Asa King, carpenter (1830s); William Murdoch, stonecutter (1830s); William Nichols, architect (1830s); William Nichols, Jr., architect (1830s); David Paton, architect and supervisor (1830s); Henry J. Patterson, brickmaker (1830s); William Percival, architect (1858); James Puttick, stonecutter (1830s); William Strickland, consulting architect (1830s); William Stronach, stonecutter (1830s); Town and Davis, architects (1830s); Ithiel Town, architect (1830s)Dates:1833-1840Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:Union Square, Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:PublicImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
Edward T. Davis and John L. Sanders, A Romantic Architect in Antebellum North Carolina: The Works of Alexander Jackson Davis (2000).Note:Although sometimes credited solely to Town and Davis, the design of the capitol was the result of a sequence of work by William Nichols, Sr. and Jr., Town and Davis, and David Paton, with advice from William Strickland. For a fuller explanation of the chronology and contributions of architects involved in the State Capitol, see Bishir, North Carolina Architecture and other sources cited herein.
- Dates:1860Location:Mill Bridge, Rowan CountyStreet Address:SR 1737, Mill Bridge vicinity, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
Davyd Foard Hood, The Architecture of Rowan County North Carolina: A Catalogue and History of Surviving 18th, 19th, and Early 20th Century Structures (1983).
- Dates:1830s-1860sLocation:Fayetteville, Cumberland CountyStreet Address:Fayetteville, NCStatus:No longer standingType:MilitaryImages Puslished In:H. G. Jones, North Carolina Illustrated, 1524-1984 (1983).