A History of Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Bell Tower - UNC Chapel Hill

On October 12, 1793, the cornerstone was laid for what was to become the first building (now known as Old East) of the University of North Carolina, the first state-supported university in America. On that same day, about a mile away, an auctioneer sold twenty building lots that were to become the first home and business sites for the new town of Chapel Hill within Orange County. Before that, there was only wilderness with a few farms and plantations and a small "chapel of ease" at the crossroads of two trading routes, called New Hope Chapel on the Hill. The name was shortened and Chapel Hill was born. And so it is this day, October 12, 1793, that was chosen as the birthday of the university and the town.

The first day of classes, January 15, 1795, for the new university was delayed a couple of weeks, because the first student walked all the way from Wilmington, North Carolina, a distance of about ninety miles. His feet were so sore when he arrived, he had to stay in bed for a while before he could attend classes. His name was Hinton James and the dorm that is further from classroom buildings than any other dorm on campus now bears his name.

From those humble beginnings, the university and the town grew together. A sketched map of the area from 1818 shows four university buildings (one, a chapel), two hotels, three stores, a blacksmith shop, thirteen homes, and a grammar school. Then, as now, the university was unable to house or feed all of the students and so most of the homes of the day were built large to accommodate student boarders. This made it possible for poorly-paid faculty members to afford homes for their families and provide the needed accommodations for an ever-increasing student population.

During the American Civil War, Union Troops occupied Chapel Hill and while the university was able to stay open during the war, the devastation following the war forced the leaders to shut it down. In 1875, Cornelia Phillips rang the bell that re-opened the doors to the students of North Carolina and those doors have not closed since. Kemp Plummer Battle was named the President of the university at the time and being a great lover of nature and beauty restored the campus to its prewar glory. Outside his home Senlac, (now the Baptist Student Union), he personally cut trails through the woods for walking and enjoying nature and those trails exist today in Battle Park. It is the only untouched land left from the original university land grant. He also initiated a summer continuing education program for teachers that grew into the School of Education, and a two-year medical school.

During the 1920s, the university underwent a substantial expansion, and the town prospered with it, to the extent that the Great Depression of the 1930s had little impact on either. Both benefited, however, from New Deal programs that brought paved streets, sewer lines, and new workers. After losing half of its students during World War II, the university surged forward with the returning veterans aided by the new G-I Bill. New homes and even temporary housing was built to accommodate them and their families. New schools were built for their children and new businesses opened up downtown with the help of Veteran's Administration loans. UNC and Chapel Hill hit the biggest growth spurt of its history. This growth was also impacted by the expansion of the medical school. After World War II, Dr. Reece Berryhill, then Dean of the UNC Medical School, expanded the medical school from a two-year to four-year MD-granting school. His predecessor was Dr. Issac Taylor, father of world famous singer/song writer, James Taylor. At that time the hospital was opened (1952) and thus marked the beginning of a major academic medical center in Chapel Hill. New university classrooms, a library, dorms, and other buildings were constructed, and by the end of the 1960s, the town had doubled in population and size.

It was at about that time that the Research Triangle Park opened which brought even greater growth to the entire area. New technologies were being developed in the Park that attracted major corporations to this hotbed of research and development. More and more people moved to the Triangle (Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh) for these newly-created jobs. Of course, Chapel Hill, being the most-attractive community in the area, drew more than its share of the attention. Another growth pressure was and is that of senior citizens looking for a great place to retire. But the attitude of the town, its officials, and the citizens at large was to try to control growth to retain the atmosphere of education and peacefulness that they were used to and loved. As such, while the town has grown, it continues to have the feel of a small university town, and for the most part is. There are an ever-increasing number of housing developments on the perimeter of town with their accompanying commercial centers, but overall, Chapel Hill has been very successful in maintaining a strong sense of community and character.

As the growth moved to the edges of town, downtown Chapel Hill adapted to no longer being the only commercial district, but continues to be the heart and soul of the community. Some say that the "old village is alive and well in downtown." Still, a district composed mainly of locally owned and operated unique shops, where the owner is likely to be the person helping you, downtown also has several major corporate stores to satisfy those tastes. There are over fifteen businesses remaining that are over fifty years old and five that are 75 years old. A returning alumnus can still visit some of their old haunts, even as new students, residents, and visitors discover them. The tree-lined streets are the place to be on any visit to Chapel Hill or the Research Triangle, so come on down and start your own Chapel Hill history.


The town's first charter had no mention of a mayor, but by 1871, H.B. Guthrie, magistrate of police, was being called by that title. Though not a mayor by today's definition, Guthrie was hired by the Commissioners to "keep the peace" and preside at meetings of the board. An 1879 charter amendment formally established a mayoral position and invested it with police power, but it was not until 1895 that the modern Mayor/Council structure began to evolve. A charter amendment increased the size of the governing board to include a mayor elected by the citizens; the first mayor so elected was John H. Watson on May 5, 1895.

By 1899, the Commissioners were calling themselves the Board of Aldermen, but the Mayor/Board form of government continued until the summer of 1922 when the first Town Manager, Eddie Knox, was hired. It was not until July 1979 that the town's governing board came to be called the Town Council.

The history of the town is inextricably linked to the University. The town was, in fact, created to serve the University. When the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees chose the area around New Hope Chapel as the site for the first state university in 1793, they also named a committee to lay out a town adjacent to the site.

The original map of the town, drawn in 1798, shows twenty-four two-acre lots and six four-acre lots wrapping around the northern, western, and eastern fringes of the campus. These thirty parcels, sold at public auction to the highest bidder, were squared off along six streets including a proposed 290-foot-wide "Grand Avenue" running out of the campus through what is now Henderson Street and the Cobb Terrace area.

By 1859, the town covered 820 acres forming a rectangle bounded roughly by Sunset Drive, Penick Lane, Tenney Circle, and Gimghoul Road. The town retained these boundaries for almost a century with the first modern annexation taking place in 1950, bringing in the Northside school (currently known as the Orange County Multi-Purpose Center on Caldwell Street Ext.) and 275 acres known locally as the Strowd Hill area. Annexation since then has proceeded at a steady pace, and the town now encompasses about twenty-one square miles.


Chapel Hill was granted a US Post Office on July 1, 1795, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Samual Hopkins. It has been in continuous operation ever since.


© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved