durham a-z g is for geography



Early People and Geography

Early trade paths followed natural ridges and fords.

Durham County is part of a Triassic basin that formed 250 million years ago. Over time, fine sediment settled on the basin's floor. Within the basin, rivers and streams carved out rolling hills and ridges. The City of Durham is on a flat ridge running northwest to southwest between the Neuse and Cape Fear watersheds.

Early Native Americans traveled by foot along ridges and crossed shallow streams. They created a network of trails across the state for travel and trade. In the 1670s the Occaneechi, a Siouan tribe, lived on the Eno River. They controlled part of a major trade route called the Great Trading Path. From Durham, the Great Trading Path ran north to Petersburg, Virginia, and south to Georgia.

Another major route running through present day Durham County was Fish Dam Road. This east/west road connected the Occaneechi village in Hillsborough to nearby settlements and villages. Fish Dam Road followed a natural ridge between the Eno River and Ellerbee Creek.


Map at a Glance

The map below was created by the Museum of Durham History to show the ridge running across the middle of Durham County. See how early paths like the Great Trading Path and roads like Fish Dam Road followed natural ridges and avoided water. Railroads and and interstates later followed the same routes.

Map courtesy of Alex Bell.

Background Courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.



Geography and Rail

The North Carolina Railroad was built along the flat ridge that runs through Durham County.

Early Durham grew up around the railroad. Without a natural ridgeline, there would have been no railroad. And without the railroad, there would have been no Durham.

In 1849, North Carolina chartered the North Carolina Railroad Company to construct a railway that would direct commerce from east to west across the state. By 1856, construction was complete. The line stretched from Charlotte to Goldsboro, with stations spaced about five miles apart.

Durham began as one of those stations, built on four acres donated by Dr. Bartlett Durham. The Durham land's location along a flat ridgeline was ideal. The town expanded around the railroad, with streets running parallel or at right angles to the rail bed.

Five railroad companies eventually served Durham's booming tobacco and textile industries. It had one of the grandest stations in the South—Durham's Union Station.


Map at a Glance

The Sanborn Map Company of New York published this map (right) in 1888. Sanborn made maps for fire insurance companies to share details about the local water supply, fire department, and building materials. Notice how buildings and streets in early Durham are oriented toward the railroad line. The distance to the depot marked on the map shows the depot's importance to the town.

Map courtesy of the North Carolina Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

1800s Continued...


Growth and Geography

Durhamites settled on hilltops and ridges if they could, on hillsides and in gullies if they had to.

As Durham's industries grew, neighborhoods spread over the hills and gullies. Before street trolleys and automobiles, owners and workers needed to live close to the factories and mills.

In 1895, The Hand-book of Durham listed the population and taxable property value of several North Carolina cities. Even though Durham had a population of just 8,000, it was the second highest in wealth behind Wilmington, which had 22,000 citizens.

Wealthy people built their grand homes on Durham's hilltops. An emerging middle-class, both whites and blacks, also built on high ridges whenever possible, often near wealthier developments. Working class and poor citizens lived in the low-lying gullies or "bottoms."

"These little communities which clung precariously to the banks of streams or sat crazily on washed-out gullies and were held together by cow-paths or rutted wagon tracks, were called the Bottoms."

Above, Pauli Murray described the Durham bottoms as just off the map on Morehead Street (current Morehead Ave.) in her autobiography, Proud Shoes.


Map at a Glance

This pictorial map (background image) was created in 1891 by Burleigh Lithographing Establishment. Similar maps were created for cities across the United States. The perspective looks northwest. Notice the prominent ridges and gullies, as well as factories and mills. Find Dillard Street (far right) and follow it south from large houses on the hilltops near the railroad to small houses in the bottoms near the creek.

Map courtesy of the North Carolina Collection at the Durham County Library.



Growth and Development

Durham grows in wealth and size, neighborhoods develop.

Between the 1890's and 1940's, there were many important milestones in Durham's growth. New colleges, businesses and hospitals opened. Newspapers published and circulated. Civic and cultural committees formed.

Durham's population continued to grow as rural residents flocked to the industrial city. In 1925, the city expanded its borders and tax base to include the mill villages of East and West Durham.

Most mill and factory workers came from rural farms, eager for a better life in Durham. Some things were better—housing, proximity to neighbors, access to stores and schools. But workers faced hardships: low wages, long hours, year-round production, unsafe working conditions and disease.

Streetcars and automobiles made new suburban development possible. Many of the neighborhoods that began on Durham's rolling landscape were labeled as unworthy of investment by the practice of redlining. Once a neighborhood was redlined, it was difficult for those citizens to get a loan or reasonable lending rates.

What is Redlining?

Starting in 1934, the Home Owners Loan Corporation created maps rating the perceived risk or security of real estate in cities across the country. The Federal Housing Agency used these maps to guide their lending and insurance policies. The federal government encouraged lending institutions to create their own similar maps.

Assessors were trained and given a list of criteria to follow when grading neighborhoods. Survey forms included fields such as age of buildings, number of foreign-born inhabitants, estmiated family income, and "infiltration of negroes."

The rating system was four grades represented by four letters (A,B,C,D) and corresponding colors (Green, Blue, Yellow, and Red).

Redlining was outlawed under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but it's impact is still felt in cities across the country. When studying the method and use of Residential Securities Maps, Columbia University's Dr. Kenneth Jackson concluded, "FHA guidelines and the actual FHA assistance favored new construction over existing dwellings, open land over developed areas, businessmen over blue-collar workers, whites over blacks, and native-born Americans over immigrants."

Black owned financial institutions in Durham opened up loan opportunities in spite of redefining practices. Dial 919-246-9993 ext.110 to hear Asa T. Spaulding talk about the Impact of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, Mutual Savings and Loan, and Mechanics and Farmer's Bank.


Map at a Glance

This map (left) was created in 1937 for the Federal Housing Administration to judge the investment risk or security of city neighborhoods. Cities across America were assessed, including Durham. Many of Durham's black neighborhoods and mill villages were given the lowest grades.

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Durham A-Z: G is for Geography was on display at the Museum of Durham History during the summer of 2015.

This digital display was created by Blaire Gardner in 2023.