Happy 150th Birthday, Durham!

Happy 150th birthday, Durham!

From article by Jim Wise published in The Herald-Sun, with permission

When it came into existence 150 years and a day ago, Durham wasn’t much to look at. In fact, on April 26, 1853, it was only a name -— Durham’s, to be exact -— a name reflecting expectations for things to come.

The expectations were none too great, and the thing to come was just a train. On April 26, 1853, the U.S. Post Office changed the name of its closest branch from Prattsburg to Durham’s, anticipating a fueling stop on the then-in-progress North Carolina Rail Road.

One hundred years later, April 26, 1853, would be observed as the designated birthday of a city that by then covered 13¼ square miles and was home to 73,000 people.

Fifty years more, and Durham covers 98 square miles and has a population of 189,000.

Impressive growth, but it should be seen in context, for in its first 50 years, Durham went from being only a name to a being Bull City: a town of 7,000 people, four square miles, two hospitals, one ambitious college and commerce that reached around the world.

A former Durham school superintendent, Ted Drain, made the comment in 1996: “Nothing is definite in Durham.” He was on the mark. Since it began as the post office of Durham’s, the city’s running theme has been change.

In the beginning

Geographically, Durham’s point of origin is 35° 59 min. 41 sec. north latitude and 78° 54 min. 9 sec. west longitude —- or, the northeast corner of Blackwell and Pettigrew streets, catty-corner from the old American Tobacco factory.

That is where Durham’s Station, a depot/post office, was built at some time after mail was first routed to Durham’s in April 1853 and before the first train arrived in March 1855. The depot quickly became focal point of a village.

Standing at that point 150 years ago, the view would have been of open fields and perhaps some trees. To the south, the land fell gradually toward the Spring Branch bottomland. To the north, it rose toward a ridgeline that carried the Hillsborough-Raleigh road.

Just uphill, there may have been a tavern. Along the ridge, stop-off points were frequent for the teamsters hauling freight —- or anyone else looking for a good time.

A little to the west were the home and lands of one Andrew Turner; a little to the east, the small Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, the Rev. Jesse Howell pastor. Farther east, roads running north and south connected the east-west route with Roxboro and Fayetteville. About 800 yards still farther, a cluster of buildings formed the village of Prattsburg: residence, country store, smithy, cotton gin, saloon and, until the previous day, post office.

But for a bad business judgment, Durham’s would have been Prattsburg. But when the railroad men approached proprietor William N. Pratt in 1849 about running track across his property and building a depot there, he refused.

Pratt, who had had the post office at his store since 1836, figured that the noisy trains would scare his customers’ horses and hurt his business. He set a price so high the railroad men went on to the next landowner west.

This was a young country doctor named Bartlett Leonidas Durham, who had bought 100 acres between the church and Turner properties and hung out his shingle there the year before.

Durham, perhaps envisioning added demand for his medical trade, gave the railroad 4 acres and permission to build.

Character sketches

Accounts from those times and places are sketchy. Twelve miles from the county seat in Hillsborough, the rural ridge was usually beyond the view of the weekly Recorder newspaper, and even the official documents of what was then eastern Orange County are incomplete.

For example, there is no record of the transaction by which Bartlett Durham took title to his 100 acres, though it may be inferred from other papers that he bought the land in 1848 from Andrew Turner. Nor does a record of his grant to the railroad survive.

Court documents do have something to say about William Pratt, for in 1833 he was indicted for “keeping a disorderly house” where “evil disposed persons of evil name and fame” gathered for “drinking, tippling, playing at cards and other unlawful games, cursing, screaming, quarreling and otherwise misbehaving themselves.”

In turn, Pratt’s illegitimate son, W.T. Redmond, left for posterity a character sketch as well:

“I knew Dr. Bartlett Durham,” Redmond wrote in 1933, when he was 90 years old. “He boarded at Andrew Turner’s house and Andrew Turner’s was where the Liggett and Myers tobacco factory is now … .

“Dr. Durham was a fine, portly looking man. He was a jovial fellow. On moonshiny nights he would get a group of boys together and serenade the town … .

“He had a habit that when he had a patient and he was so sick that he lost hope of the patient getting well and he had done all he could for him, Dr. Durham would then go off and get on a spree. Sometimes it would be nearly a week or 10 days before any of his friends would see or hear of him.”

Durham had other interests, however. By 1853, he and M.A. Angier, a neighbor to the east, had opened what may have been the town’s first store, at what is now the northwest corner of Main and Mangum streets. Among other commodities, they sold liquor. By that time, Durham was serving his second term in the N.C. General Assembly, where he had sponsored a bill for a chapter of the Sons of Temperance.

On the map

The old Hillsborough-Raleigh road is now Main Street, until Angier Avenue veers off along the old route south and east. The intersection of Angier with Elm Street, in present East Durham, is just about where Prattsburg stood, and the railroad tracks still avoid Pratt’s land, making an abrupt curve leaving downtown to the east. The names of Roxboro Road and Fayetteville Street recall their original destinations.

A tradition holds that Bartlett Durham had a home called “Pandora’s Box,” on the north side of the railroad at the present-day corner of Corcoran Street and the Downtown Loop. The house may have been incorporated into a hotel that occupied the site later, and was in turn replaced by the turn-of-the-century Hotel Carrolina -— so spelled to honor its owner, the tobacco and textile tycoon Julian Shakespeare Carr.

The Carrolina burned in 1913 and was replaced by Carr’s Durham Hosiery Mill, which was torn down in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal and replaced by a parking lot.

This was all well in the future when Dr. Durham made his grant to the railroad, but the notion of Durham as a place took hold quickly.

A deed of 1849 describes a property as lying “near to Durhams Station,” and the railroad’s 1850 survey map shows a Durham’s Station along the proposed right of way.

Notions have effect, even if the railroad and the station existed only on paper and Durham’s was only a name. On July 20, 1853, two advertisements appeared in the Hillsboro Recorder offering land for sale near “the Depot at Dr. B.L. Durham’s.” One of them was placed by William Pratt.

Less than two years later, on March 7, 1855, the Recorder took note of a property sale at “Durham’s Depot.” The price was $4,000. A few years earlier, the same tract had gone for $225.

Smut City?

The railroad, running from Charlotte to Goldsboro and there connecting with the Wilmington and Weldon line, was a godsend for central North Carolina. Isolated by geography and eastern politicians, the state’s midsection was just emerging from a “Rip Van Winkle” era that saw the region steadily losing both population and capital.

Suddenly, prospects were bright, and interior dwellers with vision and moxie were quick to try taking advantage.

The buyer of that much-appreciated property at Durham’s was John A. McMannen, a barrel maker by trade and a lay Methodist preacher by avocation who had made himself prosperous.

First, he published an engraving that compared the hereafters for saints and sinners that sold like hotcakes. Next, he took his profits and invested in the smut business.

Smut is a disease of wheat, and wheat was the region’s main cash crop in the 1840s. McMannen bought a patent for a machine that separated healthy grain from blighted and set up a factory in a gristmill on the Little River. This enterprise also prospered, spurring growth of a community called South Lowell -— in hopes it would emulate the then-booming factory town of Lowell, Mass.

But when the railroad came several miles to the south, McMannen saw the future. He bought land at Durham’s and placed an ad in the Recorder of June 6, 1855: “Proposals for Building a Town.”

“The undersigned having purchased the property at Durham’s Station, on the great North Carolina Central Rail Road,” is now making arrangements to lay off a town in half acre lots. … Merchants and mechanics, and business men in general, will find this proposal worthy their prompt attention.”

Being a good Methodist, though, McMannen made a stipulation: “The terms will exclude the sale of ardent spirits, and all persons of questionable character.”

He got no takers.

Golden Weed

Ironically, it was the Rose of Sharon Baptist Church that proved the disreputable Mr. Pratt’s fears well grounded.

Passing trains so disturbed services and spooked the worshippers’ horses that, in 1855, the congregation moved about 600 yards northeast to the place it remains as the First Baptist Church of Durham.

Bartlett Durham died in 1859, just 35 years of age, but he lived long enough to see the first stirrings of a town that would bear his name.

By then, there were about 100 people living around the depot, and to serve them there were stores, saloons, a machine factory, blacksmith shops, shoemakers, a school, hotel -— and a tobacco factory.

The tobacco business arrived in 1858, when Wesley Wright and Thomas Morris began processing leaf for smoking in a shop near the railroad. In 1861, Wright left town and the business was carried on by the Morrises until they sold out to John R. Green.

Green, who had quit growing tobacco when he realized there was better money in processing it, concocted a blend for the self-consciously sophisticated tastes of the young scholars at Chapel Hill, who passed through Durham’s Station going to and from the university -— or, increasingly, the Confederate Army. Sharing around their campfires, the boys in gray spread the popularity of Green’s Durham Smoking Tobacco.

In a few more years, it would be Green who created the Durham Bull as an emblem for his brand, but only after he had been swarmed by competitors trying to cash in on the sudden nationwide demand for smokes from Durham.

The demand was set off by another April 26 —- that of 1865, 12 years to the day after a post office became Durham’s. That was the day Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston signed off on surrender terms from Union Gen. W.T. Sherman at the Bennett farm 3 miles west of Durham’s.

For 10 days, Durham’s had been the forward point of Sherman’s advance. While the generals negotiated, thousands of troops were idled in the vicinity, and some took it upon themselves to liberate the tobacco supply in John Green’s warehouse.

Green thought he was ruined, but before too long orders began arriving at the Durham’s Station post office for more of that good Durham tobacco. Disaster turned to gold and Durham had gone from being a name to being a place to being a hot commodity.

As they say, nothing is definite.

© 2003 Jim Wise, all rights reserved



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