Thursday, July 1, 2010

Day 10: Durham Palimpsest

On the ride in today, I just beat the morning Amtrak. I wasn't playing chicken with the train, exactly, but I could hear it coming, pulling out of Durham's lovely new station at West Village, so I pushed harder on the pedals. The crossing lights came on just as I was riding over the rails, and this gave me an inordinate sense of accomplishment.

Most of my short commute is on South Buchanan Blvd. This little stretch between Chapel Hill Street and Main is a cross section of the ridge line that runs between Raleigh and Hillsborough, a geologic formation that attracted the North Carolina Railroad back in the 1840s, when the necessities of wood-burning steam engines forced them to consider a midway stop in this vicinity. There was no Durham then. Durham, they say, is the young city of the Triangle: younger than Chapel Hill or even Raleigh, and nothing compared to Hillsborough. So the city's story begins with the tale of two men, one good, one bad, like the story of The Island on "Lost." In this case, we have William Pratt, the tavern keeper whose "grog shop" acquired a reputation as a place where "evil-disposed persons of evil name and fame and conversation... come together," and Bartlett Durham, the country doctor who donated the land for the railroad depot, which was then given his name, an appellation later applied to the new town that sprang up around it (and I always figured we were named for Durham, England).

As the tale is usually told, Pratt held out too long for too much money, and so lost the deal, though G K of the "Endangered Durham" blog (recommended) suggests naming rights mattered little to him, compared to what he was eventually able to sell his land for, as property values rose after Durham Station opened in the early 1850s. The City of Durham wasn't actually established as such until 1869, with the County to follow in 1881 (torn from the right shoulder of Orange).

But of course our history does not begin with incorporation, or the railroad. Pratt and Durham were already there, after all, and the ill-famed region was known as Prattsburg before it became Durham. Before that it was Dilliardsville, for William Dilliard, from whom Pratt bought his land. Dilliard ran a post office along the Raleigh-to-Hillsborough Road, which he started after buying the land from one Absalom Alston. And who before Absalom? Eventually the Indians, like Eno Will, whom we encounter twice in history: first as a vigorous native guide in John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina (1701), then as an aging alcoholic in William Byrd's Journey to the Land of Eden (1733). So it goes.

It seems Durham has always had a taint to it, from Eno Will, to William Pratt, to, well, today: always the poor corner of the Triangle. Way back when Julian Carr started his cotton mill here (1884), the Durham Morning Sun rejoiced, "In place of this dark hole of iniquity and infamy, there will be a busy, bustling manufacturing community." But then, of course, manufacturing declined, both textiles and tobacco, and today all the mills and cigarette factories are gone from Durham. I'm often reminded of my native Cleveland here, as I am in no other part of the Triangle.

On the way home tonight, near the corner of CHS and S. Buchanan, I saw an historical marker for Julian S. Carr (the "S" stands for Shakespeare, by the way). According to this marker, which is located on the berm by the accounting firm in the converted church, Julian's grave lies "1/4 mi. S." This places it right in my neighborhood. But where? I paid close attention as I biked, especially when I figured I was "1/4 mi. S." of the marker, but I saw only the houses lining Yancey Street. So, there's a mystery to be solved, another day.

No comments:

Post a Comment