Have you ever wondered why there is no rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham? Do you want to know how we can ever create one? Do you want to know how you can help? Let me tell you . . .
When the North Carolina Railroad was built across the Piedmont from Goldsboro to Salisbury in the 1850’s, there were several competing proposals about the route of the rail line. A route through Chapel Hill was considered for the NCRR, but the Hillsborough alternative was ultimately built. The nearest point to UNC on this line was not in any existing community, so a stop was established five miles east of Hillsborough at what became known as University Station. Students were dropped off there and would either walk or pay for a wagon to take them 10 miles to UNC. For about 25 years, this route was UNC’s connection to the railroad and the rest of the state. But this was never viewed as a satisfactory arrangement.
The former station house at University Station, east of Hillsborough, NC
In February of 1861, the legislature created a corporate charter for the University Railroad Company to establish a rail connection from Chapel Hill to some point on the North Carolina Railroad. The charter called for the commencement of construction by 1863 and completion by 1867. Of course, the Civil War derailed these plans, but even at this early date, engineers considered whether it was better to connect to the NCRR by following what we now call Old Chapel Hill-Durham Road or by building a line to University Station. “That route was surveyed by Prof. C[harles] Phillips fifteen years ago when the prospect of a railroad or a plank was agitated for the University. It is but eight miles, four miles shorter than any road leading from Durham could be made, and is said to run mostly on a ridge and will require but little grading.” (NC Presbyterian, 2/12/1873).
By the beginning of 1878, the Trustees of the University had come to feel that a rail connection to Chapel Hill was essential, resolving that they “look with deep interest to the early completion of the railway communication between Chapel Hill and the steam lines of travel already in existence, and would urge upon the Legislature of the State and upon the people of the country the duty and value of a speedy establishment of such line.” (UNC Trustees Minutes, 1/16/1878).
A Rail Line to Durham?
Immediately Durham interests sought to secure a connection from Chapel Hill to Durham. The Durham Tobacco Plant editorialized in 1879: “Durham can and will do more for such a road than any other point . . . this would be on a direct line to Oxford and connected with the Clarksville branch and thereby make it a very important road. The charter should be granted running from Durham.” The Chapel Hill Weekly Ledger (3/8/1879) agreed: “Durham will help us build the road if we build it to that place – she has promised and is able to aid in its construction. There are many reasons why the road should be built to Durham. It will be beneficial to both towns to a greater extent than if it were built to any other point.” These pleas did not fall upon deaf ears, but in 1879 when the legislature authorized the creation of the State University Railroad Company (SURR), the question of where to connect was left in the company's hands.
Because the line to Durham was longer and more expensive, it was clear that a line to Durham could only be justified by investment from Durham. The Chapel Hill Ledger (11/8/1879) reported that a meeting of the incorporators resolved to take subscriptions for $10,000 to run the line through Durham. Battle relates in his History: “I spent a day in the endeavor to persuade [Durham residents] to do this, but met with no response . . . One merchant replied, ‘Your road is against the interests of Durham. Trade would stop at Chapel Hill.’”
In early 1880 the Chapel Hill Ledger (1/10/1880) reported: “An interesting debate was participated in . . . as to what point the road should be run . . . Messrs. Battle and Hoke favoring University Station . . . They would be glad to see the road go to Durham if the requisite amount could be raised. Messrs. [Julian[ Carr and [Paul] Cameron warmly advocated Durham as the point to which the road should be run. Mr. Carr pledged himself to raise $4,000 in Durham . . . K P Battle offered a resolution to locate the road from Chapel Hill to University Station.” The resolution passed.
The State University Rail Road
So ultimately the rail line was built to University Station, rather than Durham. Ironically, Jule Carr wrote a letter to the Ledger (1/24/1880) casting doubt on the success of a route that did not connect at Durham: “I trust that your railroad to University Station may prove of as much benefit to the good people of Chapel Hill as some of your very clever citizens seem to think it will, but, to be honest with you, I have very little hope of it myself.” As it turned out, the railroad to University Station was not only a benefit to “the good people of Chapel Hill,” but it was so successful that it spawned a new town that would, thirty-three years later, be named for Mr. Carr.
"The Whooper" ran from University Station to Carrboro for over 40 years.
Whether the community leaders of old made the right decisions could be debated. On the one hand, the route actually got built and served (and still serves) important functions for southern Orange County. That rail line spawned the Town of Carrboro, which (pardon my bias) I view as a good thing. On the other hand, had they worked harder to connect UNC to Durham, our region and its challenges would look quite different today.
Will Rail Ever Come?
Now at last we may be coming to the time when the problem of a rail connection to Durham could actually be solved. Two years ago the General Assembly authorized Triangle area Counties to implement an additional ½ percent sales tax to support public transportation. While other funding sources were considered by the Legislature, only a sales tax was ultimately permitted, and only on the condition that it be approved by a county-wide referendum in each county.
After years of careful planning, Triangle Transit and Orange and Durham governments are finally coming together around a plan to build a light rail system to connect from Durham to UNC. The plan is essentially this:
Orange and Durham County voters would go to the polls in November of 2011 or 2012 to consider a referendum on whether to increase the sales tax in each county by ½ of a percent to finance a major expansion of public transportation. If approved, the new public transportation plan would include:
1. Major bus service upgrades along US 15-501 and NC 54,
2. A Bus Rapid Transit system on Martin Luther King Boulevard,
3. A new Carrboro-Chapel Hill- Durham regional express bus service.
4. Expanded service on the 420 Bus Route between Hillsborough and Chapel Hill.
5. Full Chapel Hill Transit service on Saturdays (expanding the limited existing Saturday schedule).
6. Limited Chapel Hill Transit service on Sundays (currently there is no service),
7. A new Efland-Hillsborough-Durham regional express bus service along US-70,
8. A major evening service expansion on Chapel Hill Transit,
9. Permanent funding for bus service within the Town of Hillsborough (currently grant funded, but with funds running out in 2014 unless this referendum is passed),
10. Commuter rail service from Durham to RTP starting in 2018. This service would eventually extend far into Wake County as well, but only after Wake implements the same sales tax. This service could be further expanded to serve Hillsborough and points both further east and west, but that is not a part of the immediate plan, and
11. Light Rail service from UNC to Duke, Downtown Durham and NCCU in 2025. This service could be expanded to points further west at some point in the future if further funding were to be identified.
How to Get Involved
The next six weeks will be critical to making this plan come to fruition. The Orange County Board of County Commissioners will need to pass a resolution placing this issue on the ballot in order for us to get to vote on it in November.
We need to vote on this referendum THIS YEAR. All environmental indicators show that we should have implemented a system like this a decade or more ago. Orange County’s Green House Gas (GHG) Inventory shows that over half of all GHG emissions in our community come from automobile traffic and a major expansion of public transportation is the single greatest opportunity to reduce those emissions. The price of gas continues to spiral out of control and there is no end in sight. The sooner we move to a more sustainable future centered around public transportation, the better off both our region and our planet will be.
As well, 2011 will be a great time to vote on this matter. The political pendulum is singing back in the direction of environmental protection and sustainability and we should ride that wave to victory this November. If you agree with me that this plan needs to be the future of Orange County, then please let your County Commissioners know: Now is the time and this is the plan!
You can email the entire County Commission by emailing the Clerk of the County Commission at:
Battle tells us in his History: “When the grading was finished the ladies of the village gave the employees and convict [laborers] an excellent dinner.” There was also a grand ceremony to mark the occasion. Cornelia Phillips Spencer’s daughter Julia drove the last spike in the rail line. As Battle says“Speeches were made by President Battle, Mr. Jones Watson, and others.” And Julia Spencer wrote a song for the occasion, which I take the liberty of excerpting here:
"Farewell, old wagon/Jolting hack and phaeton/Farewell forever/We’re going to take the train . . .
"Farewell forever/Old road to Durham/Farewell forever/We’ll travel now by train . . .
"And all along the coming years/That time for us may fill/We’ll bless the men that brought the road/To dear old Chapel Hill . . ."
Battle, Kemp P., History of the University of North Carolina, Vol. II, UNC Press, 1912.
The Chapel Hill Ledger, George T. Winston, ed., 1879-1880.
Hoke, William F. papers, North Carolina State Archives.
Hoke, William F. papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH.
Love, James Lee, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, UNC Press, 1945.
The Tobacco Plant, Caleb B. Green, ed., 1879-1882.
Trustees Minutes, UNC Archives, UNC-CH.
The Weekly Ledger, Cornelia Phillips Spencer, ed., 1878-1879.
Wilson, Louis R. ed., Selected Papers of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, UNC Press, 1953.