Top down view of buildings in downtown Raleigh, NC.

Historic Roads of Raleigh

In Feature Stories, July 2018 / August 2018 by Tracy Jones1 Comment

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When Raleigh first came into existence at the end of the 18th century, it was often called “a city of streets with no houses,” a square-mile grid designed by surveyor and onetime state senator William Christmas. Downtown’s principal streets—think Wilmington, Hillsborough, New Bern Avenue—radiated from the central statehouse, where the Capitol Building now stands. Each street was named for one of North Carolina’s eight judicial districts, and North, South, East and West Streets created geographical boundaries to Raleigh’s 400-acre city center. As the city’s population grew, so did its footprint, creating a sprawling artery system of highways and backroads.

This summer, we thought we’d dive into the backgrounds of some of our favorite Raleigh streets in order to learn a little more about the history of the city we call home.

Fayetteville Street

Postcard of Fayetteville Street

Postcard of Fayetteville Street. Massengill Postcard Collection, August 2015 addition, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh.

Paved in 1886, Fayetteville Street was considered the heart of commerce in downtown Raleigh during the 19th and 20th centuries. Storefronts lined the street, from jewelry shops to printing enterprises to the Yarborough House, Raleigh’s premier inn that opened in 1850, but burned down in 1928.

Known as “North Carolina’s Main Street,” Fayetteville Street hosted parades to celebrate everything from seasonal holidays to veterans returning home from war. It was also the perfect location for showing off the city’s growth.

By 1879, telephone poles lined Fayetteville Street, with electric wires strung up by 1885. The 1870s brought the street’s tallest structure, the four-story Briggs Hardware building, followed by the ten-story Citizens National Bank building 40 years later, according to Jennifer A. Kulikowski and Kenneth E. Peters in “Historic Raleigh, NC,” published in 2002. By 1914, Raleigh’s first drive-in gas station opened on Fayetteville, and by 1939, the city installed its first parking meters.

Hillsborough Street

Hillsborough Street, like Fayetteville Street, has been around since Raleigh’s birth. Home to St. Mary’s School beginning in 1842, it has served as a gathering place for residents, tourists and students over the years, and was the site of the largest anti-Vietnam War march in North Carolina in 1970. The State Fair moved to Hillsborough Street in 1873, which included “exhibit halls, a racetrack with a three-story grandstand, 200 stalls for horses and cattle, and 75 pens for sheep and swine,” according to the Hillsborough Street Renewal Project, a partnership project with the City of Raleigh. In 1891, trolley tracks came to Hillsborough Street and trolleys ran along it into the 1930s.

Oberlin Road

New Hillsboro Road, renamed Oberlin Road in the 1870s, skirted the property—now, the namesake shopping center—of the Cameron family, prodigious landowners who have been reported to have owned more slaves than anyone else in North Carolina. After the Civil War, the land was sold to former slaves, one of whom established Oberlin Village in 1866. James H. Harris, born a slave in Granville County, gained his freedom and studied at Oberlin College in Ohio, an institution where leaders opened their doors to both women and black students. Oberlin College was a key stop along the Underground Railroad and had a reputation for abolitionist activities. In Raleigh, the name “Oberlin” is said to come from Harris’s connection to the school.

Jones Sausage Road

Jones Sausage Road is named for exactly what it sounds like: a sausage factory. Specifically, this 3.5-mile road between Garner and southeast Raleigh is named after the Jesse Jones Sausage Company that was established in Garner and later sold to General Mills, and then ConAgra Foods. The plant closed after an explosion in 2009 that killed four people and injured approximately 70 others, when a new fuel line was improperly purged for a gas-fired water heater. ConAgra donated the 98-acre property to the Town of Garner and Garner, which lost roughly $55 million worth of taxable investment in the accident, has been aggressively searching for a new business to replace it. There are recent whisperings that Hillwood, a Texas-based global real estate development company, may be interested.

Hargett Street

A 1926 photo of Hargett Street

Raleigh’s “Black Main Street” was Hargett Street, seen here in 1926. State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh.

The eastern section of Hargett Street, named after Commissioner Frederick Hargett of Jones County, served as the African-American commercial and social center of Raleigh in the early 20th century, according to Kulikowski and Peters.

As Raleigh’s “Black Main Street,” East Hargett Street was home to the greatest concentration of black-owned businesses, including the second location of the medical practice of Raleigh physician Dr. Manassas Thomas Pope (his original office was on Fayetteville Street). It was also home to the Lightner Arcade and Hotel, in which the newspaper office of The Carolinian took up residence on the ground floor in 1940. Today, The Carolinian is the only African-American newspaper published twice weekly in North Carolina, and its offices currently are located on New Bern Avenue.

Another historic newspaper, The Raleigh Times, also had its home on East Hargett Street. Today, the building serves as a bar and restaurant that pays tribute to the paper’s history through its restoration and preservation.

Falls of Neuse Road

We’re all familiar with the Neuse River, linking the state’s original capital of New Bern to its current one and feeding our water supply at Falls Lake. The “Falls of the Neuse” refer to the fall line shoals, submerged in Falls Lake. There’s also a Cliffs of the Neuse State Park in Wayne County, where the river winds through a fault line created from a shift in the earth millions of years ago. The result of the erosion is a series of cliffs rising 90 feet above the water.

The name Neuse itself is derived from the Native American Neusiok tribe, a people that early Raleigh explorers encountered in the late 1500s. The local population called the river “Neuse,” which translates to “peace.”


Fast Facts

  • Named after the nine commissioners: Dawson, McDowell, Martin, Blount, Bloodworth, Hargett, Harrington, Person, Jones.
  • Lane Street is named after Joel Lane, the original owner of the land on which Raleigh sits.
  • Named after NC’s eight judicial districts: Edenton, Fayetteville, Halifax, Hillsborough, Morgan, New Bern, Salisbury, Wilmington.
  • Other state leaders recognized: Revolutionary General William Davie, Senate Speaker William Lenoir, and House Speaker Stephen Cabarrus.

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  1. In the energy of the uncertain and the excitement of the irregular Hillsborough Street is six streets in one.

    Nearest the Capitol it is formal, a grand, tree-line boulevard, advancing
    ceremoniously to Raleigh Crossing.

    Next a once-cluttered, auto-centric segment (two drive-in restaurants, three service stations — the only thing missing in the mise-en-scene was a junk-yard dog) now transformed.

    On to St. Mary’s School and garden apartments, the street becomes parkway-like, green and calm; there’s even a prototype landscaped mini-median at the Morgan roundabout.

    There, also, is a nearly forgotten contributor to the street’s variety – the segment between Morgan and Pullen – more than a dozen early twentieth century residential and commercial buildings, historic fragments of the city’s development. Recent construction, set back from the street 10-20 feet beyond the sidewalks with actual front yards on some, a suggestion on the rest. All contributing to a sense of openness amid small-scale/large scale contrasts.

    Next, beyond the NC State Bell Tower is the NCSU/Meredith campus corridor where funky-town faces the groves of academia.

    Finally, on the street’s most western reach, a railroad joins the street and they race together, past semi-pastoral, country-side towards another architectural icon, the Dorton Arena, along with the State Fairgrounds arcade.

    A streetscape, a place with meaning, evidence of the range and variety of how the city thinks and feels about itself.

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