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The beginnings of the Town of Kenly go back to a day in the year 1885, when owners of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad purchased a right-of-way on a tract of land owned by Charlotte (referred to in latter deeds as Lottie) Watkins and Augusta Barney Watkins. Shortly thereafter, the actual laying of the railroad track began.
Only a matter of days later, on April 2, 1886, Lottie Watkins (Great Aunt of Henry Watkins) sold property to the W. & W. Railroad, this time two tracts of land comprising 51.5 acres, more or less, for the grand sum of $278.50, or approximately $5.46 per acre. During the years that the W. & W. Railroad Company was negotiating for land and laying tracks in this area, a railway official spent a great deal of time here. He became friendly with and gained the respect of the citizens of the new settlement, and so endeared himself to them that they decided to name the place in his honor. The man was John Reece Kenly.
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Kenly was born January 21, 1847 and entered railway service at an early age. He began working with the Pittsburgh and Connellsville Railroad (later Baltimore & Ohio) in July 1868, when he was 21 years old. Later he transferred to the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Company. The Richmond and Petersburg, as well as the Wilmington and Weldon branch line through Kenly, was later to become a part of the New York-to-Florida Atlantic Coast Line, which merged with Southern Railway to become Southern Coast Line.
John Reece Kenly enjoyed a distinguished career with the Atlantic Coast Line, from the time that he joined the company in April, 1882, until his death on March 1, 1928. He advanced through the ranks to become head of the Operating Department and from that position rose to become President of A.C.L. on December 18, 1913.
Kenly’s first mayor was L.M. Hamilton, who was placed in that position temporarily when the town was incorporated March 7, 1887. When the town’s first election was held on the first Monday in May, 1887, Hamilton was officially elected as Kenly’s first mayor.
Johnston County was created from Craven County on June 28, 1746, and named in honor of Gabriel Johnston, North Carolina’s colonial governor at the time. The following counties were subsequently derived from all or part of original Johnston: Orange, now Durham (1752); Dobbs, later divided into Wayne, Greene, Lenior (1758); Wake (1771); and Wilson (1855).Ranking 10th in size among North Carolina’s 100 counties, Johnston’s land area is about 792 square miles. As the fastest growing county in the state, Johnston’s population is 165,000.
Johnston figured prominently in the early affairs of North Carolina during its transition from colony to state. Much groundwork was laid for the colony’s role in the American Revolution when the 13-member Provincial Council held its first two sessions in 1755 at Johnston Court House (chartered as Smithfield in 1777). Smithfield was also the site of the General Assembly’s 1779 session. Between 1779 and 1788, Johnston’s county seat was several times a contender for the location of the state capitol.
In the antibellum times of the 1840's, the most vociferous advocates of inland waterway transportation were reluctant to yield their enthusiasm to the burgeoning railroad industry, but popular interest in rails overshadowed interest in river transportation during the two decades immediately preceding the Civil War. The first railroad built across Johnston County - the 223-mile state-controlled North Carolina Railroad from Goldsboro to Charlotte (via Raleigh and Greensboro) - was completed in 1856. It bypassed Smithfield some four miles to the north, following a beeline between Goldsboro and Raleigh. Smithfield passengers boarded the train at a station originally called "Smithfield Depot," located just west of what is now Selma, where Buffalo Road crosses the present-day Southern Railway. The depot later became known as "Mitchener's Station."
Smithfield travelers and merchants were hardly pleased by the location of the North Carolina Railroad, since Smithfield Depot was almost an hour's drive from the heart of Smithfield by wagon or hack. Tradition, still persistent in the latter half of the twentieth century, has asserted that Smithfield residents opposed locating the railroad through the town, that they did not want noisy trains disturbing their peace nor steam engines polluting their clean air with smoke. Succeeding generations have been told that a "Smithfield man" voted against locating the railroad through Smithfield, and that the town lost the railroad "by one vote." Two Johnston County members of the Legislature did vote against the legislation that incorporated the North Carolina Railroad in 1849, and a single vote ultimately decided whether the railroad was to be approved. But legislative records do not support the legend preserved by spoken words.