Lincolnton was established as the county seat of Lincoln County in 1785. It was laid out with a central courthouse surrounded by a grid plan of streets, blocks, and lots with four primary streets—East Main, West Main, North Aspen, and South Aspen—leading from the court-house and dividing the town into quadrants. Over time, development in Lincolnton filled the original grid plan, expanded it, and eventually moved beyond it while maintaining the four principal arteries like compass points.
Due to a steady influx of pioneers to North Carolina’s backcountry, by 1840 Lincoln County was one of the largest and most populous counties in North Carolina. It led the state in the value of many farm products, including wheat, orchard products, and dairy products, and was among the top producers of cotton and livestock statewide.
In the late eighteenth century, forges and furnaces in Lincoln County were among many that were established in the western Piedmont. By 1849, the county’s ironworks lead the industry in North Carolina, producing large quantities of iron castings, bar iron, and wrought iron tools. Other manufacturing activities such as sawmills, grist mills, tanneries, paper mills, and potteries bolstered the economy.
Of particular significance, around 1813 Michael Schenck established the first successful textile mill south of New England. In 1816 it was destroyed by a flood, but three years later Schenck, James Bivens, and John Hoke erected a larger plant, the Lincoln Cotton Mills, on the South Fork of the Catawba River, which operated until the Civil War.
Lincolnton grew into a prosperous center of trade, culture, and government. In 1800 forty-eight whites and forty-four slaves lived in town. In 1816, growth had continued to the point where the General Assembly authorized the laying off of additional lots in the town on land previously set aside, reserving tracts for an academy and a church. By 1820, the number if town lots had expanded from the original 100 to 161. The sale of town lots provided for the construction, ca. 1821, of the Pleasant Retreat Academy for male students. Several years later a female academy was constructed (Brown and York, 262).
Lincolnton continued to grow. According to the Lincoln Courier, by 1845 five attorneys maintained offices along East Main Street, six physicians had their offices along both East and West Main Street, and merchants surrounded the courthouse. Additionally, the town supported four hotels, four grocers, three tailors, a watchmaker and jeweler, a printer, three saddle and harness makers, five coach factories, five blacksmiths, a cabinetmaker, two tanners, two hat manufacturers, two shoemakers, and a coppersmith, as well as five carpenters and two brick masons (Brown and York, 263).
Political developments in the 1840s, however, had a sobering effect on Lincolnton’s future. In 1841 Cleveland County was formed out of part of Lincoln County, followed by the creation of Catawba County in 1842 and Gaston County in 1846. As a result, Lincoln County was reduced from over 1800 square miles to 305 square miles. In the 1840s’ partitions, Lincoln County lost prime farmlands and important factory sites to the new counties, and much of the county’s momentum for growth was curtailed (Brown and York, 244,263).
Growth in Lincoln County’s population remained static during the mid-nineteenth century and progressed at a slow pace throughout much of the second half of the century. In 1887, the editor of the Lincoln Courier wrote that “Lincolnton is not dead. Her condition is simply comatose….” (Brown and York, 271).
With the beginning of a new century, Lincolnton began to flourish once more. A variety of new businesses improved the local economy, yet they were surpassed in their impact by a growing number of textile mills located in and around Lincolnton that took advantage of the South Fork of the Catawba River and two rail lines. The town’s population increased from 828 in 1900 to 2,413 in 1910; by 1920 it had reached 3,390. The early twentieth century saw building activity greatly increase in Lincolnton, with brick stores replacing frame structures around the court square.
Today Lincolnton’s history is reflected in its downtown and residential historic districts adjacent to downtown.