Historically Speaking: Webb Cotton Compress

By Jessica Gorman 

In the 1880s, local inventor, Samuel J. Webb invented the Webb Cotton Compress. Its purpose was to reduce the size of cotton bales for shipping purposes. At the time, the Webb Compress was considered “the largest and most powerful compress in the world.” It was sold all across the country.

The first compress was constructed in 1887 at the Pennsylvania Agricultural Works located in York, Pennsylvania. Construction took nine months. The compress underwent its first trial in December of that year. In that trial, a 42-inch bale of cotton was compressed to 18 inches and then, pressed again, further reducing its size to 10 inches. A subsequent trial, the following February, resulted in a bale that was reportedly compressed to six inches. 

In 2000, a Webb Compress was found in a warehouse in New Orleans. It was intended for this compress to be included as part of a new state museum. To my knowledge, it is still in storage and until last week, this was the only one I knew to exist.

In the summer of 1899, a Webb Compress was purchased by the Southern Railway Company as a replacement for the press at Charlotte, North Carolina after a fire that destroyed the compress facility. The old press served “as a partial payment on the new press.” In July, Samuel J. Webb visited Charlotte in preparation for the arrival of the new compress in August. Four train cars were required to transport the massive piece of machinery. The bottom piece alone weighed 23 tons. The work of moving the pieces into place was “done by means of ropes and pulleys and levers.” In total, the compress weighed 125 tons and stood over 30 feet tall. 

The compress remained in that warehouse in Charlotte until 1993 when it was threatened by expansion of Norfolk Southern Railway’s freight terminal.  It was reported to be the last known steam compress outside of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. By efforts of the Southeast Antique Machinery Society and Denton Farmpark, the compress was disassembled and moved to the park in Davidson County, North Carolina. There, it was restored and has been kept in working condition since 2006. 

The Charlotte Cotton Compress is considered an important part of North Carolina history. It is also an important part of our local history and one that I hope to have the opportunity to visit one day. 

(Jessica Gorman is the Executive Director for the Dorcheat Historical Association Museum, Webster Parish Historian, and an avid genealogist.)