The Merritt Railroad Crossing

I imagine many OP readers have heard about area residents who are concerned about the new fence blocking access between Estes Park Apartments in Carrboro and Village West Townhouses in Chapel Hill.  The management of Estes Park erected a fence and gate which is padlocked.  The fence is 8' tall with three strands of barbed wire at the top.  It blocks a traditional connection between the two neighborhoods and by extension connections from each neighborhood to downtown Carrboro and Chapel Hill. This subject has gotten a little discussion on OP already: Alderman Dan Coleman and I went out today and looked at the fence and realized that it blocks the driveway to the Leo Merritt property.  Leo Merritt was a senior citizen who lived across the railroad tracks in a house that was built in the early 20th century.  He got to his house by driving through Estes Park and across the railroad tracks.  It was an odd set-up, but it had obviously been that way for a long time.  As I was thinking about all this and looking at the locked gate, it occurred to me that Mr. Merritt probably had an easement of some sort that allowed him to do this.  And then I remembered that the Town of Chapel Hill bought Mr. Merritt's property (and therefore whatever easements he had) a few years ago as part of a major openspace initiative.As I was leaving Estes Park, I stopped to ask a resident who happened to be in the parking lot what he thought about the fence.  He told me that he understood the goal of the fence, but that he does not own a car.  "That was a part of how I get around," he told me.  Now he must walk a long extra way to get where he is going.  He told me he thought having the gate unlocked during daylight hours would be a good compromise.So I spent a dusty afternoon in the Register of Deeds Office in Hillsborough and at the Carrboro Planning Department.  A review of historic aerial photographs of Carrboro revealed that the Merritt railroad crossing has been there for a lot longer than Estes Park Apartments has.  In fact, Estes Park clearly acknowledged the access point in 1971 when the apartments were built, as aerial photos show that there was a well-developed, formal crossing of the tracks there in 1973.   My title search showed that Leo Merritt's father, J C Merritt,  bought that property in the 1920's (Orange Co Deed Book 103, page 259).  The house was probably built about that time.The Merritt railroad crossing is plainly shown on an aerial photo from 1938.  And the photo also shows that this crossing was at that time accessed from what is now Pleasant Street in Carrboro.  The connection to Pleasant Street demonstrates that the current popular, but infromal connection from the end of Pleasant to Estes Park Apartments (on the opposite side of the property from the fence) is actually a very old and well established connection as well.  Also, the photo shows that this route was at one time the primary access road for the old slave cemetery in Chapel Hill, which can still be seen just across from Village West on Village Drive.So it seems clear that Estes Park Apartments is blocking a traditional right of way that has existed for more than 70 years, possibly more like 100 or 150 years.  While I am sure that Estes Park Apartments is trying to address some valid security concerns, I believe that they have over-stepped their authority by closing off a traditional right of way that has been in place for 70+ years.Because the Merritt Property now belongs to the Town of Chapel Hill, I believe that the Chapel Hill Town Council is in the best position to take action on this matter.  I hope that we can all find a way to protect the security of residents of Estes Park and the access rights of residents of the entire community.  The fence was erected for security purposes (which I support) but in times of rising gas prices and increasing pedestrianism, the gate needs to be open at reasonable times for the public to have access at this long-standing traditional railroad crossing.


Mark, thank you so much for doing this research! re-opening this connection will literally benefit thousands of people in both Chapel HIll and Carrboro (not just Estes Park & VIllage West residents). I hope that the Chapel Hill Town Council will take action to make sure their property continues to act as an essential link for residents who get around witout cars - whether by choice or by neccesity.

(I also hope both towns will work toward a safer and more accessible connection in the long term, perhaps a greenway through the old Merritt property.)

Below is an area map and some photos I took in the last few weeks.

View Larger Map


Yeah, thanks Mark for the legwork and Ruby for this wonderful resource.

 Hope to hear more about this connector - I use the path often to stay away from heavy traffic on EstesExt. A greenway thru Merritt would be great. Good to know it's town property.

Mayor Chilton sent this map which illustrates his research. Click for a larger version.

Historic Merritt Crossing

its hard to imagine a politician in any community being so active and engaged with pedestrian issues as to take the initiative on an issue like this--truly aligning with public interest at the risk of upsetting a private business. outstanding! ¡qué ilusión!

i am sincerely appreciative, but i hope i do not seem ungrateful when i worry that efforts like this may be distracting from the urgent need to bring the carrboro portion of estes ext up to standards that will allow motorists to safely and efficiently share estes ext with cyclists and pedestrians--those narrow lanes need to be widened to 14' to allow motorists to safely pass cyclists.

cutting through an apartment complex parking lot to access a dirt trail to a small neighborhood street full of parked cars and driveways may sound like good clean fun, but presents far more conflicts for cyclists than traveling as a vehicle on the official roadway.

again, i do appreciate and support the efforts to maintain public pedestrian access and am proud to live in a town that makes that a priority, but i hope the town will not lose sight of the need to widen the lanes on estes ext..

I agree that this is more of a stop-gap solution and would prefer better infrastructure both on Estes and along Bolin Creek or the railroad to properly connect Estes neighborhoods to downtown. However, this is not a connection between small neighborhood streets! If you look at the Google map I posted above, you can see that this path links cyclists and pedestrians from Carrboro to several major destinations in Chapel Hill including Umstead Park and MLK Blvd.

Even if there was a sidewalk on Estes, I would never walk that far out of the way to get downtown unless I just wanted the exercise. Nonetheless, Estes Drive is an essential artery of our community and it needs to be made accessible to all of us.

great points! i do consider pleasant dr, indicated on the google map, to be a small neighborhood street though--the kind where through cyclists need to be really alert to motorists pulling in and out of driveways haphazardly. its not terrible, but not designed or intended for through traffic.

your map does make it clear that this is an important connection for umstead rd bike and ped traffic, but i believe that past posts on other threads on op have suggested this as an alternative to estes ext..

a friend wrote, off-list:

It's important to fight for easements like the one described. When they're closed off for a certain period of time, they can be forever lost under common law principles. There have been some notorious access fights at the beach that centered on this issue.

Thanks for the comments, Adrian.  I agree we need more to be done along Estes as well.  A sidewalk on the south side will be built in 2009 - the project should be sent to bid late this year.  And we have federal funding tentatively lined up to pave the sewer right of way from Estes Drive to Williams Street (opposite the entrance to Estes Park).  That will take a few years yet, though.

I can't give you much optimism on widening lanes on Estes, however.  I am not against it, but there is a big danger associated with talking to DOT about widening lanes - they may come up with a much bigger and more ambitious plan than we might necessarily want.  Or that would be my concern about that.  I prefer to pave the path to Williams Street and separate cyclists from cars altogther.

Finally, I would point out that a more formal trail from Village Drive to the end of Broad Street would be a possibility at some point, although that would really be up to the Chapel Hill Town Council, as the land in question is almost entirely in Chapel Hill.

thank you. i believe you understand that i'd prefer improvements on the road to make sharing the road easier and safer, so i won't dwell on that.

with a sidewalk on only one side of estes we should take steps to discourage wrong-way cycling on the sidewalk--its the sort of activity where perceived danger is low and actual danger is quite high. motorists turning right onto estes from a driveway are looking only to their left (for a gap) where they expect traffic. they will not expect traffic to be approaching from their right.

perhaps sharrows on the north (westbound) lane, where there will be no sidewalk, could help?

p.s.: thank you for attending the workshop today! more of the sort of involvement that makes me proud to live in carrboro!

Private property has stolen easements that go back much further than 70 years.

Although I have not encountered this personally, I have heard reports that uniformed people are stopping the folks walking to and from downtown Carrboro along the railroad tracks separating Estes Park Apartments and Village West and telling them that they are trespassing. I don't know whether these are Carrboro, CH or UNC police officers or employees of the railroad. It is absurd if the railroad company is claiming this is necessary for safety. There is a greater danger to pedestrians from cars and trucks along Estes Drive and other streets than from the trains.This is really intolerable, particularly now that the fence has blocked the historic Merritt Crossing!James Coley

Mr. Coley, that is definitely happening.  A friend of mine was stopped while walking to work along the railroad tracks between Village West and downtown Carrboro.  My friend said that the man who stopped him had several other people lined up beside the tracks, and he was checking IDs and writing down information from them.  My friend asked to see his badge, which he would not show, and so he continued walking without showing his ID.  Who would have hired the "railroad cops"?  Are they really police officers?  Are people required to stop and identify for them?  Curious.Brooks Rainey Pearson 


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