Road to Iron Mountain: The railroad comes to Chapel Hill

Yesterday, I was going some historical research on the Chapel Hill Iron Mountain Railroad, the original name of the rail line that ran from the Carolina campus through what is now Carrboro on to University Station between Hillsborough and Durham.

I found the original 1873 Charter, and wonderful narrative on the coming of the railroad in Kemp Plummer Battle's 1912 tome the History of the University of North Carolina. The initial 1873 attempt failed, and the 1879 legislative session rechartered the railroad with the new name "State University Railroad", in place of the earlier name "Chapel Hill Iron Mountain Railroad".

The initial 1873 effort was to carry off iron ore from the mountain off what is now Estes Drive (it is sandwiched in south of Carolina North and is now a residential subdivision).  USGS now calls it "Iron Mine Hill", rising to 525 feet. (In contrast, where the rail line crosses Estes Drive the elevation is 387 feet.) By 1879 the focus had shifted to providing a rail link to the UNC campus. The line was finished and opened in 1882. The location of Carr Mill along the line (and the eventual incorporation of Chapel Hill's West end into Venable and then a name change to Carrboro) was not surprising, as textile mills usually located along rail lines to allow raw materials to be shipped in and finished goods to be shipped out.

The 1898 report of the operations of the railroad reports the railroad carried 12,199 passengers that year, at a fare for the 10 mile trip of 25 cents.

Battle writes of the following song composed for and sung at the 1882 celebration of the railroad's opening, which sums up the times:

"A song, my boys, for Chapel Hill,
And for the N. C. U*.,
And three times three the echoes thrill,
And keep them ringing, too.
Away with study, toil and care;
Our hearts, with pride elate,
Shall crown in joy without alloy
The day we celebrate.

Farewell, old wagon,
Jolting hack** and phaeton***,
Farewell forever,
We're going to take the train.
With hill and valley smiling 'round,
In vernal robe arrayed,
We are summoned by a grander sound
Than cannon ever made—•
The whistle of the engine, boys:
The cars are here at last.
So, fellows, let us all rejoice,
For jolting days are past.

Farewell forever,
Old road to Durham,
Farewell forever;
We'll travel now by train.
And all along the coming years
That time for us may fill,
We'll bless the men that brought the road
To dear old Chapel Hill.
So cheers and thanks we join to give
For what we all do see;
The railroad, boys, has reached up to
The University.

Three cheers for the whistle,
The grand old whistle,
The loud sounding whistle,
That blows for the train.
Now that the ending rail is laid,
The last hard spike is driven,
Some special tribute should be paid,
Some names with honor given.
Thank Battle, Jarvis, Andrews, Hoke,
Caldwell and Coley strong;
Holt, Raiford, Cooley, Witherspoon—
We'll bless them all in song.

Hurrah for the builders,
The brave hearted builders,
The hard working builders,
And the crew that run the train."

* N.C.U. - contemporary reference to the University of North Carolina as North Carolina University, see the lyrics to "Hark the Sound" written in 1897: "Hark the sound of Tar Heel voices, Ringing clear and True, Singing Carolina's praises, Shouting N.C.U."

** hack - a coach or carriage kept for hire; hackney

***phaeton - any of various light, four-wheeled carriages, with or without a top, having one or two seats facing forward, used in the 19th century.


Total votes: 174


There are some other interesting tidbits in several different area local histories documenting that the train was called The Whooper.  The current show at the ArtsCenter (HiddenVoices) notes that catching an unauthorized ride on the Whooper by jumping the train on the fly was a popular activity among miscreant teenagers back in the day.
William Meade Prince (1893-1951) wrote "The Southern Part of Heaven" in 1950. Pages 43-53 are devoted to The Whooper. Speaking of his childhood (circa 1900-1910), Hooper writes "{I}n the infant days of the new century, our only link with the outside world was ten miles of rusty rails which round through the weeds and the scrubby farm lands to University Station. [e]verybody loved the Whooper and called it a unique little train... hard by the station, there was a small red-brick hotel ... [T]wice a day the Whooper puffed and groaned to and from University Station. It was made up, ordinarily, of Mr. Nesbit's ancient engine and a combination passenger and baggage car, under the charge of fiercely mustachioed Captain Smith, the conductor, who was also flagman, brakeman and crew ...[H]e let the small fry ride to and fro ... whenever they wanted.  We would go out to the depot, Collier Cobb and I ... The Chapel Hill depot was not actually in Chapel Hill; it was a long, long mile ... from uptown, and it was really in a little place called Carrboro, alongside a brick cotton mill and some drab-looking warehouses and stores and sheds ..." (pp 43-44) "...a few miles out from the village, off through the woods from the railroad tracks, there was an old, abandoned iron mine ... there we often hiked against parental orders, to climb down the crumbling ladders ..." (p 47)  There is a black and white sketch of the Whooper at the depot on page 49.  Wonderful reading for history buffs. My father (who lived in Chapel Hill 1941-43) told me once that the train stopped running in the late 1930s.
That cool link to The Souther Part of Heaven in Google books also contains a link to libraries where you can borrow it. Of cource its available at the Davis Library at UNC. Thanks for that history tid bit. Very interesting for someone who hasn't lived here long but wants to learn more. :)
oops. the hotel that the author was referring to was in Greensboro, not University Station.

The N&O had a story in 1993 about the Carrboro depot:


The one-story building, with a low-slung overhang, is actually the town's third railway station. There was a station even before there was a Carrboro. The first was a mere boxcar that served as a passenger depot for about 18 years, starting in 1882 when the railway spur was extended to the area known as West End. A train called the Whooper provided transportation for travelers heading to UNC-CH. In 1900, a one-story frame depot replaced the boxcar. Larger facilities were needed as the town became one of the largest rail-tie producers in the East. In 1913, the present station was built. The southern portion, near Main Street, was divided into two waiting rooms -- one for blacks and one for whites. In the 1970s, the station was converted to a restaurant and saloon.  Alderman Frances Shetley, who remembers the station as a child in the 1930s and bemoaned its garish appearance, said she's delighted with the project."


Any idea what the melody might be for the song? With those words it probably isn't easy to sing, but worth a try. Well, anyone who knows me knows that I should never try, even if alone, but I'd love to hear the Loreleis or the Clef Hangers put their voices to it.

Linda Convissor

Ah, the J Line.

Back in the last century, when I worked for old man McClatchy, I rode that train into town and wrote a long story about it and the history.

The story of the last run -- a young Sandy McClamroch was on the train -- is a great tale. As I recall, they stopped for a picnic.

Kemp Battle's history the University has a good deal on the finances and stories of the effort.


Kirk, would that have been the TTA excursion run in 1997? Do you have the story? Would love to read.

No the TTA thing, although I remember that. I got permission from Norfolk Southern for myself and a photographer to ride the coal train into town.

They picked us up at the Durham Amtrack station. I'll try to dig through the archives and find it.


You are a wonderful source of great stories and tidbits concerning Chapel Hill's and Carrboro's history. You really do help to make my day on many an occasion. THANKS.

Way back in or around 19 and 78 I remember some of the Umstead Rd. neighborhood boys taking me to the old iron mine off of Sewell School rd. I was prepared to see something like a W.V. coal mine, but alas they showed me what turned out to be a huge open pit in the woods ! This was when they were first grading the roads for Iron Mine Hills ? subdivision. I guess they filled in the pit. Talking about mines, does anyone remember the old ammno bunkers out by Heritage Hills ? We would rike mtn. bikes thru these bowl shaped depressions, the trails were known as "The Powderhouse Trails" one older friend told me the Navy stored bombs there for the flight training during WW2, those were great trails ! I think they  got gobbled up by the subdivision on the ridgeline above Hertiage Hills !      
They are still here! There are still remnants of the trail through one of my neighbors backyard, along Price Creek.

I lived off off Umstead Drive near Estes 1970-72 and 1979-84 and sometime during that period (before Iron Mine subdivision was built) climbed up Iron Mine Hill, but I don't remember what I found :)

In Raleigh, I live about 1.5 miles from Leadmine Road, where old histories said that there was a graphite mine in the early 19th century. No one seemed to know exactly where it was until a resident of a subdivision was digging in his yard in 1991 and found this:

old graphite mine Wake County


Ironwoods, a J.P. Goforth development, is off Sewell and Estes Ext. and they has a stone marker on the hill off Ironwood Drive with a plaque commemorating the iron mine. Valarie Schwartz did a June 27, 2001 story on it in the CHN when they had their ceremony.

The History of the University of North Carolina (1907) by Kemp Plummer Battle, page 767-768, relates: "We will now cross the ridge to the north, descending into the valley of Bowlin's Creek. Rising to the north we see the Iron Mountain, where excavations show a goodly quantity of valuable ore, but up to this time too far from coal to be merchantable. We pass the University water works and come to a most romantic defile, called Glenburnie. In it was the oldest pre-Revolutionary mill in this section, called Yeargin's. The mud sill may still be seen. Along the stream on the south bank is a lovely path of countless ferns, which I name the Fern Bank walk."

The mill that Battle refers to was known as Yeargin's Mill and was located where Umstead park now stands.  The University's water pump station was located near the mill on Bolin Creek, also in what is now Umstead Park.

There is a small section (~15 feet?) of Bolin Creek between Pritchard Extension and Bradley Road that seems to have the remnants of a stone wall on the south edge of the creek. (It's also got lots of ferns, of course.) I've been wondering about that, anyone have the story?

Here is the 2001 CHN story, with some entertaining clips:

The plaque reads: "Site of Old Iron Mine A ten foot vein of rich iron ore was mined on this site from 1872 to 1882. The mine was owned and developed by General Robert F. Hoke. The ore was shipped to Pennsylvania from smelting via a spur railroad which was built connecting the site to the Southern R.R. at a junction later named 'University Station.' The mine was closed in 1882 due to the declining value of iron ore. "


In the Jan. 6, 1939, issue of The Chapel Hill Weekly is a story by Joe Jones about a walk he and Jesse Lewis took to the mine site.  He wrote: "All that is left of the mine is a perpendicular shaft about 50 feet deep and 15 feet in diameter. It is surrounded by now-scattered piles of ore, and the ridge to the north is gouged with five or six shallower pits, some of them blasted into the solid ore-veined rock. The mouth of the main shaft is unprotected, and its sides are perpendicular. If anybody fell in, it would be impossible for him to climb out, even if he wasn't injured by the fall, and unless he had a companion he might very easily die there before he was discovered by a chance rambler.

This is great oral history. It's terrific to see it updated with memories from the 70's! One traditional element of Carrboro Day (May 4) is the Story Sharing -- not only live testimonials but lately mostly an audiovisual presentation of archived photos collected by a life-long resident of Carrboro.
Does anybody know what this was?
University Station is the point where the State University Railroad meets the North Carolina Railroad east of Hillsborough. From 1882 to 1938 or so, passengers changed there from one line to another -- there were no through trains other than football specials. The Norfolk Southern Railroad refers to this location as "Glenn".

O.K. all this talk of Chapel Hill industrial history is getting me fired up ! A shout out to Mayor Mark, I caught the tail end of your talk about Haw River mills, excellent, wish I got to grab one of the maps ! Have you ever paddled the Rocky River from Carolina Hill to NC 902, that run is chocked full of old dams, there are extensive rock walls paralleling the river thru out the run, I'm thinking old wagon road ! The biggest rapid on that section of the Rocky is an old broken stone dam ! Switching subjects, someone please tell me what the university or the Navy Seabees buried out on the Horace Williams Tract (  aka Carolina North, they couldn't come up with a better name!). Riding the trails out there you come upon these man-made mounds and depressions where something was either dug up or buried. There must be 10-15 places like this out there ! My riding partner says the university would  take lab waste and bury it out there ! Maybe that explains the rush to pave it over !


There were about a dozen different mills along the Rocky River.  Take a look at:


for more on the mills on the Rocky.

I read or heard someplace that railroad rails are the same standard width apart as wagon wheels, and the wagon wheel standard dates back to Roman times. I like to think this is why we have railroad "tracks" -- a reference to wagon ruts, easy to follow on well established routes.


Catherine DeVine

Well, search far enough and you can find ANYTHING on the internets.  Below is a 1911 map of downtown Venable, North Carolina.  Note that what we now know as Main Street was then called Jones Ferry Road. Durham Hosiery Mill is what is now Carr Mill. On the other side of Jones Ferry is Lloyd Manufacturing, while directly across the tracks from Durham Hosiery (near the depot) is Lloyd Flour Mill. The inset shows Thelma Knitting Mill on Greensboro Street.  All are served by rail. You can see the passenger depot near the center of the picture. Note that the map title tells us that Venable is one mile west of the Chapel Hill post office.  Venable was incorporated in 1911, name changed to Carrboro two years later.

James Vickers 1996 book Images of America: Chapel Hill has on page 59  a photo of the iron mine and the Whooper. Pages 58 and 60 also have RR photos. I only link the images as they are copyrighted.

It's interesting to see that Jones Ferry Road came all the way into town along what we now call Main Street.

The Chapel Hill Herald did a brief story in 1999 on the history of the road's name:

Jones Ferry Road likely owes its name to a Revolutionary War veteran and the boat service he built to ferry travelers across the Haw River and his large landholdings in the early 1800s...
[Elisha] Mitchell, a UNC professor more than 150 years ago and a well-respected regional botanist, left detailed accounts of his plant gathering and research forays... In a June 1821 note he refers to "Col. Jones' Plantation." Nine months later, in April 1822, Mitchell mentions finding a plant "beside Haw River near the ferry to Col. Jones."
So, who was Jones? ... [T]he most likely candidate is Edmond Jones, who fought in the Revolutionary War and was one of the original donors to UNC...
Where, exactly, was the ferry located and what happened to it? We may never know until a detailed search of Chatham County land deeds is undertaken...
(Road names rooted in land's history. Chapel Hill Herald. January 31, 1999.)

That's the most I could find online about Jones Ferry Road when I first went digging several months ago, but I haven't explored the GA's archives. Anyone know more?

On another note, have you noticed that the Google Maps street-level view is now available for the Triangle, including Carrboro and Chapel Hill?

lots more here on Edmund Jones.

Edmund Jones, a most valuable citizen in his county, was a
soldier in the Revolutionary War. Marrying Miss Rachel
Alston he settled as a farmer near Chapel Hill, but soon after
the location of the University removed to Chatham County and
established himself on Ephraim's Creek, on the present line
of the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad, midway between
Siler City and Ore Hill. He is buried about twelve feet from
the road. He died in 1834 at the age of 85 years. He left
three sons, two of whom resided in North Carolina, and the
third moved West. His descendants are scattered all over the
South and Southwest. One of his sons, Atlas Jones, was an
alumnus, then a tutor of the University, 1804-'06, then a Trustee.
He was a lawyer of prominence and a member of the
General Assembly from Moore County.

 I would think Joe Hackney would know the answer to this. His great great grandfather Daniel Hackney served in the NC House from Chatham County around 1840, living right around where Jones Ferry Rd meets the Haw River.

An Historical Atlas of the Haw River by Mark Chilton (Haw River Assembly 2008) will be  released to the public at this year's Haw River Festival in a few months, but in the mean time . . .

Edmund Jones's plantation was the estate known as Rock Rest, on the Haw River just south of Chicken Bridge on the south/west side.  There was a mill on the Haw at Rock Ridge, later known as the Dark Mill.  The most distinctive rapid on the Haw between Chicken Bridge and 15-501 is called "The End of the World" and it is the broken down remnant of the Jones/Dark mill dam.

The Jones Ferry was near that location as well - essentially the same location as modern-day Chicken Bridge.  In fact, a predecessor of Chicken Bridge is shown on the 1865 Coast Survey map of NC as "Jones Bridge."   The 1891 Tate map of Orange County shows "Jones Ferry Road," although instead of applying that name to modern Jones Ferry Road, it is the label for what we now call Crawford Dairy Road.  This name juxtaposition is curious until you realize that modern Jones Ferry Road and modern Crawford Dairy Road meet up at Frosty Store - essentially in the immediate vicinity of Chicken Bridge, further supporting the interpretation that the Jones Ferry was near Chicken Bridge.

How long will it be before your book is searchable at Google Books, Mark!

By the way an excellent job of segueing this thread into promoting your upcoming book.  :)

It will be on my list to buy.



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