Museum exhibit explores roads most traveled (Pt.2)

New Hope -- University Road with cobble stones in Duke Forest photo: Joe Liles

New Hope — University Road with cobble stones in Duke Forest photo: Joe Liles

The Museum of Durham History’s latest installment in the “Durham A-Z” series is “G is for Geography and Growth,” on display from Aug. 4-Oct. 14. This exhibit highlights how Durham’s unique geography influenced how and where people traveled and settled in Durham County. In conjunction with the new exhibit, community historian David Southern writes about five colonial and pre-colonial roads that crossed Durham and the surrounding area. These old paths played an important part in shaping the Durham we travel and live in today.


This pre-colonial road is a principal tributary of the Great Trading Path, and its gist corresponds loosely to a section of present US 15. A connector of ancient habitations— sites that would develop into Oxford, Chapel Hill, and Pittsboro—it traversed three major watersheds: Tar-Pamlico, Neuse, and Cape Fear. Broken sections of it exist today as city streets and county roads; more of it, now abandoned, may be discovered as deep gouges in woods and back yards. In some subdivisions, these eroded traces have been filled, packed, and smoothed-over to the surrounding level, and thus have been permanently erased from the landscape.

 From the Duke Homestead to Patterson’s Mill

The building of Interstate 85, or US 70-A as it was marked when construction began in the late 1940s, interrupted a significant section of New Hope Road between Guess Road and the NC Railroad right-of-way. Peeler’s Crossroads of bygone lore was likely where New Hope Road crossed Hillsboro Road, at or near the bridge of present 15-501 Bypass. In the mid-1980s, when the Durham Freeway and the large clover-leaf interchange were under construction, the saddle of this old road was revealed again, briefly. A single willow in the interchange still marks a spot on the original bed. South of the expressway, the old road continues as Andrews Street to Morreene Road where an apartment complex has covered all traces.

In the section of the Duke Forest north of NC 751 and east of US 15-501 Bypass, a wonderful link has been perfectly maintained, and it is cobbled. Apparently an early land-owner of that tract decided to fix his section in a way that would be permanent, and he was successful. The cobbled section corresponds neatly with lines of old deeds and ends near another Duke Forest road. Adjacent landowners with colonial grants were brothers-in-law, James Bowie and Gideon Lincecum. Their grandsons and namesakes were destined to make history in Texas: Jim Bowie, martyred at the Alamo, and Dr Gideon Lincecum, a self-taught naturalist and correspondent of Charles Darwin. South of NC 751, the old road continues as a Duke Forest trail of gravel and cinders to a bridge alongside the original ford of Mud Creek. At that point the track of New Hope Road veers from the maintained path and can be picked up intermittently, sometimes as fence lines beside fields.

Near where it crossed Cornwallis Road (a misnomer for the Ramsgate Road, an old path widened by royal governor William Tryon at the time of the Regulator troubles) there is an old homesite behind the former location of White Cross School. South of the Cornwallis Road crossing, the old road is evident in backyards and woods, and a piece of it is still used for farm vehicles within the Blaylock land. Very near the junction of Mount Sinai Road, its track merges with present Erwin Road, and it followed that loosely, from side to side, for about three-and-one-half miles to Old Oxford Road, just south of Weaver Dairy Road.

This section, for two hundred years, was Patterson territory. The large white house at the intersection of Erwin and Whitfield roads contains a room or two that may be from the original John Patterson cabin, the homesite marked “I. Paterson” on the 1770 Collet map. Among his descendants were Mann Patterson and John Tapley Patterson, and two great, early nineteenth century plats mark the course of University Road through their lands on both sides of New Hope Creek. In addition, these plats demonstrate the junction with the important Hillsborough-Fayetteville stagecoach road, of which the unpaved portion of Cambridge (Pickett) road is a vestige. In the Duke Forest alongside Erwin road is a large pit which marks the ancient junction. Near there was the site of Trice’s Store, and Patterson’s Mill was a stones-throw downhill at the fording place on New Hope Creek. The Patterson mill dam still stands in the Duke Forest, but its tail race was filled when the new bridge was built six years ago.

Originally published in the News & Observer 

← Older Newer →