Ramsgate Road (called Cornwallis Road in these parts)Posted on August 17, 2015
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.
Ramsgate Road (called Cornwallis Road in these parts)
It is possible that the portion of this military road that runs through Durham county was first blazed by a survey team in 1737 that had been sent by Governor Gabriel Johnston to map a 60,000 acre tract in the upper Eno valley. During the Regulator insurrection, Governor William Tryon widened it and made other improvements for transport of troops and artillery. Running from the colonial capitol at New Bern, it connected at Hillsborough with the Trading Path with access to Salisbury and points west. Neither this road nor the Fish Dam Road served the new state capitol at Raleigh, a fact that led to their steady decline as through-routes after the 1790s.
From the east it enters Durham county on or near the present track of NC 54, veering right at Nelson and then splitting from Miami Boulevard where it is today called Cornwallis Road. Though kinks have been straightened for automobile traffic, and though the road has been modified through the Research Triangle, its course is close to the route that Tryon’s troops followed in 1771. Where it meets Fayetteville Road south of the new Hillside High School campus, it runs concurrent with that road until turning left at Beechwood cemetery. Likely a piece of original road bed ran diagonally through the cemetery the way the old Hillsboro-Raleigh road ran through the Bennett Place. Its crossing of Third Fork Creek is not at the original fording place, and US 15-501 Business has altered its course at the Chapel Hill Road overpass. Residual loops and kinks left from straightening are still visible in yards and in sections of the Duke Forest from US 15-501 Bypass west. The section between Erwin and Kerley roads was unpaved until the early 1970s, and old loops of the original track are still visible in winter.
That this road is now known as Cornwallis Road is a fine example of how misinformation can become permanent. When Cornwallis rested his troops in Hillsborough in February 1781, he is said to have directed his engineers to fill a few potholes on Churton and King streets. He was in that town for only a few days and did not lead his weary troops eastward along the road that now bears his name.
Originally published in the News & Observer