A small industrial city dominated since the late nineteenth century by the Union Camp Corporation, one of the world's largest wood products companies, Franklin also owes its prosperity to peanut processing. The town was founded in 1835 with the arrival of the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad. Its location on the Blackwater River allowed the transfer of goods between rail and steamship and transport into North Carolina. It also became a major shipment point for the agricultural products of Southampton County, including cotton, tobacco, and livestock. Originally known as Blackwater Depot, the town was laid out on a grid with two major axes: the railroad and First Avenue create an east-west axis, while Main Street, which parallels the river, runs north-south. The Civil War ruined the economy, but the architecture is reflective of the economic resurgence Franklin experienced during the late nineteenth century. A fire destroyed the downtown commercial area in 1881, and the town council adopted an ordinance requiring all new commercial structures to be constructed of brick or stone. In recent years Franklin has been a Main Street community under the program developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the downtown has experienced a rejuvenation. Hurricane Floyd caused severe flooding to downtown Franklin in 1999; recovery is underway.
Structures of interest can be found along Main Street. The residential areas of Franklin—located to the west of downtown along High, Clay, Lee, and Norfleet streets and West First and West Second avenues—contain a variety of Italianate, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Foursquare, and bungalow examples, as well as other residential types, along with churches, all worthy of inspection.