Museum exhibit explores roads most traveled

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.

Fish Dam Road

Fish Dam Road map drawn by Joe Liles. Courtesy of the Eno River Association.

The New Hope Road, Part 1

This pre-colonial road is a principal tributary of the Great Trading Path, and its gist corresponds loosely to a section of present U.S. 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 Snow Hill to the Duke Homestead

At William Johnston’s Snow Hill plantation, this old road from the south joined the Trading Path to make a single route to Petersburg. A merchant with Petersburg factors, Johnston sensibly located his plantation and store at this critical junction. Later, Johnston’s land and intersection became part of the vast Cameron holdings now within the bounds of the Treyburn development. When Annie Cameron Collins’ Snow Hill acreage was divided in the early 20th century, a newly surveyed plat was drawn to mark the constituent lots. On this drawing (in Platbook 5 at the Durham County deed vault), the Trading Path is labeled Old Hillsboro Road and the New Hope Road is labeled University Road.

In fact, it is called University Road in many old deeds and plats. The Bennehans and Camerons, early trustees of the University of North Carolina, traveled this road to conduct university business. Later names in other locations are Old Oxford Road, Old Chapel Hill Road, Road to Petersburg, and Road to Chatham Courthouse, and all of these refer to a single, ancient path.

From Snow Hill plantation south to the Eno River, the original track has been mostly obliterated. In that section the old road forded Cabin Branch and crossed present-day Godwin and Infinity roads to a great ford on the Eno River near the present site of the Teer quarry. A nineteenth-century plat of Benjamin Forrest’s 1000 acres, now in the Cameron papers at UNC, shows contiguous property lines with the New Hope Road and Eno River drawn in fine detail. In volumes 5 and 10 of the grant books kept by the Secretary of State, there is a much earlier conveyance of this same 1000 acres on the Eno. An example of that rarest of grants found in the Piedmont interior, it is a royal grant from George II to William and Osborn Powell, sons of John Powell, New Bern surveyor and town official, and his wife Fielder, a tavern-keeper. Dated September 1737 and filed in New Bern at a time when all of the Neuse River basin was considered to be in Craven county, it begins at a red oak “on the side of an Indian old field”—meaning, a likely village site. Generations of farmers have picked up numerous “arrowheads” and potsherds from Eno bottomlands between this crossing and the West Point mill area immediately upstream.

South of the Eno, the track of New Hope Road continued along present Denfield Road, and from Roxboro Road it followed present Duke Homestead Road. At that latter crossing where fast-food restaurants now abound, Uncle Willie Duke situated his brush-arbor chapel called Mount Hebron, the ancestor of Duke’s Chapel United Methodist Church. Three-quarters of a mile farther south at the Duke Homestead, New Hope Road intersected the Fish Dam Road (now Carver Street at that point), another junction of ancient lineage and prominent pre-Colonial significance.

Originally published in the News & Observer 7/31/2015

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